The movie begins in a small town called Canton, (Mississippi) where it is very obvious there is a separation between blacks and whites. Tonya Hailey is a little ten-year-old black girl, who is on her way home from the grocery store. A truck pulls up with two white men, James Louis “Pete” Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, who viciously attack and rape this little girl. After attempted murder, this girl survived and made her way home, and the two men were found at a bar and were arrested. Carl Lee Hailey, Tonya’s father, obviously enraged, is full of emotions and nervous these two men may be acquitted, despite what they’ve done. Full of rage, Carl Lee storms in while Pete and Billy Ray are being escorted into court by deputy Dwayne Powell Looney, rifle in hand, and kills the two men, accidentally shooting the deputy in the leg from cross fire. Carl Lee is arrested and chooses Jake Tyler Brigance to be his lawyer. However, this case turns into more of an issue than any one of them would have suspected. The KKK, a group of racist white men, becomes involved. The KKK get involved in numerous ways, by lighting wooden crosses on fire, one of which lights Jake Brigance’s house on fire, also by attacking Jake’s secretary, Ethel Twitty and her husband, Bud, ending in his death, and Ellen Roark, a law student who’s helping Jake with the trial, gets abducted and left for dead. All this occurs when the trial is going on, including a riot between the KKK and a group of African-Americans. A fairly obvious underlying theme throughout the movie is the attempt to get a black man a fair trial in Mississippi. D.A. Rufus Buckley is the defense attorney, is the sneaky and intelligent lawyer working in contrast to Jake. Throughout the questioning of numerous people (police men, family of the deceased, doctors, etc.) the case ends with Jake making an impressive yet devastating speech, having everyone in the court room close their eyes and imagine Tonya and what the two men did to her. He concludes the speech with the words, “Now imagine she’s white.” Addressing the racism that has been going on in the curing the case, and having people imagine and sympathize to Carl Lee. The jury concludes Carl Lee as not guilty, therefor being set free, and the movie ends with the comfort that society is becoming a little bit closer to the end of racism.
The two lawyers of this trial are firstly, Jake Brigance, who pleades Carl Lee Hailey to be innocent by case of insanity. The second, is Rufus Buckley, the defense attorney, who states Carl Lee to be guilty, and seeks the death penalty for his actions.
Before the case begins, Mr. Buckley explains how everyone has entrusted the office they are holding Carl Lee’s case in, to uphold the law of the land. He says, “Our society cannot condone men to take the law into their own hands, no matter the circumstance.” Mr. Buckley taking the by-the-book approach, pointing out the facts, as well as taking into consideration what happened to Carl Lee’s daughter, however not letting that slide by as his excuse to murder.
Carl Lee choose Jake Brigance as his representative lawyer, thinking through the racism that can be involved in his case and hoping that Jake can help the whites of the court to understand his story despite his color.
Carl Lee is charged with the murder of James Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, as well as the shooting of Deputy Dwayne Looney. Carl Lee pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, and Mr. Buckley has a request granted to have Carl Lee examined by their own doctors. Mr. Brigance requests bail, which is denied, therefor Carl Lee remains in prison for the length of the trial. Mr. Brigance also requests a change of venue, which is originally denied, however reconsidered, and is allowed to file for a change of venue. This is a attempt for Carl Lee to have a fair trial, due to his race, as it is seemingly impossible for a black man to have a fair trial in the south.