Set in Canton, Mississippi, the film revolves around the rape of a young girl and the subsequent arrest and assassination of the rapists by the girl's father, Carl Lee Hailey. The remainder of the film then focuses on the trial of Carl Lee Hailey for murder.
Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), seeks out Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), an easygoing white lawyer. Carl Lee is worried that the men may be acquitted, due to deep-seated racism. Brigance admits the possibility as they both remember a similar case in the Mississippi Delta where four white teenagers were acquitted of raping a black girl some time before. Hailey acquires an M-16 rifle, goes to the county courthouse and opens fire, killing both rapists and unintentionally injuring Deputy Looney (Chris Cooper), with a ricochet. Carl Lee is soon arrested without resistance.
Brigance agrees to provide defense for Hailey for a much smaller amount of money than such a trial would usually require. He intends to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention, and the Ku Klux Klan begins to organize in the area. A brother of one of the dead rapists, Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), calls Brigance and his family with death threats and organizes the formation of a KKK clan in the county. The district attorney, Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), decides to seek the death penalty. Presiding Judge Omar Noose (Patrick McGoohan) denies Jake a change of venue to a different county.
Jake seeks help for his defense team from sleazy divorce lawyer Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt). He seeks guidance from long-time liberal activist Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), a great civil rights lawyer who was disbarred for violence on a picket line. Jake's secretary, Ethel (Brenda Fricker), is wary of the racially explosive case.
Jake is approached by Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), a fiery liberal law student from Massachusetts who belongs to the ACLU. At first Jake is reluctant to accept Ellen's cooperation, but later agrees to let Ellen help with the case.
The trial begins amid much attention from the media and public. The KKK, who has a member inside the sheriff's department, burns a cross on Jake's lawn, forcing Jake to send his wife and young daughter away while the trial continues. As the trial begins, the KKK march down Canton's streets, meeting a large group of mostly black protestors at the courthouse. Chaos ensues outside the courthouse as the police lose control of the crowd. A black teenager hits the KKK Grand Dragon, portrayed by Kurtwood Smith, with a Molotov cocktail, burning him to death.
Jake's attraction to Roark grows, and nearly begin an affair before Jake gains his wits and goes home - to find that arsonists have burned down his house. The next morning, Jake sits on the still-smoking steps of his house and meets with Harry Rex, who says it is time to quit the case. Jake refuses, saying that to quit now would make his sacrifices meaningless.
Soon after, Freddie Lee Cobb shoots at Jake as he exits the courthouse, but misses and hits a national guardsman policing demonstrations. That evening after leaving Jake's office, Roark is abducted by Klansmen working with a racist sheriff's deputy, Willie Hastings (Mark Whitman Johnson). Roark is beaten, tied to a stake in the wilderness, and left to die. She is saved by the informant "Mickey Mouse," whose identity is revealed as one of the Klansmen, Tim Nunley (John Diehl), working with Cobb.
Jake goes to see Roark in a hospital and feels guilty for the situation. He returns to his office and is startled by his wife, Carla (Ashley Judd), who has returned and tells Jake she now understands why he took on the case - because he would have done the same as Carl Lee had it been their daughter who was raped.
Out of options, Jake goes to see Carl Lee in his jail cell and advises accepting a lesser guilty plea. Carl Lee refuses, telling Brigance that his views on justice and race are wrong. "America is a wall," he says, "and you're on the other side."
The courthouse is packed to see the attorneys' closing arguments. Jake tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. He describes, in slow and painful detail, the rape of a young 10-year-old girl, mirroring the story of Tonya's rape. His final comment to the jury is to tell them to imagine the victim was white.
Hours later, after deliberation, an African American child runs out of the courthouse and screams "He's innocent!" Jubilation ensues amongst the supporters outside. Sheriff Ozzie Walls (Charles S. Dutton) arrests Freddie Lee, his racist deputy Willie Hastings, and a Klansman called "Winston" (Tim Parati).
Jake brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house. Carl Lee is surprised and standoffish. Jake explains, "Just thought our kids could play together," and Carl Lee smiles.
|Jake Brigance||Matthew McConaughey||Defense attorney for Carl Lee Hailey|
|Ellen Roark||Sandra Bullock||Law student working free for the defense|
|Carl Lee Hailey||Samuel L. Jackson||Defendant|
|Rufus Buckley||Kevin Spacey||Prosecuting attorney|
|Carla Brigance||Ashley Judd||Jake's wife|
|Ozzie Walls||Charles S. Dutton||Canton Sheriff|
|Lucien Wilbanks||Donald Sutherland||Retired lawyer; Jake's mentor|
|Freddie Lee Cobb||Kiefer Sutherland||KKK member; brother of one of the shot rapists|
|Judge Omar Noose||Patrick McGoohan||Presiding judge|
|Harry Rex Vonner||Oliver Platt||Attorney assisting defense|
|Ethel Twitty||Brenda Fricker||Secretary to Brigance|
|Tonya Hailey||Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly||Carl Lee's daughter, rape victim|
|Stump||Kurtwood Smith||KKK Grand Dragon|
Before the part of Jake Brigance went to Matthew McConaughey, other actors, such as Val Kilmer, John Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt, were considered. Woody Harrelson had lobbied for the part and Kevin Costner was close to being cast, but Grisham axed Costner because the actor wanted complete control of the project. McConaughey was originally going to play Freddie Lee Cobb, but put his hat in the ring by speaking to Joel Schumacher and convincing him to let him audition. Schumacher videotaped the audition and decided that McConaughey was right for the part. He then approached Grisham and showed him the audition, which sold Grisham on casting him.