The novel begins with Steve leaving the Manhattan Detention Center, getting in a van shackled, heading out for his first trial. His defense attorney Kathy O'Brien briefs him on what is about to happen and warns him that everyone will be watching his every move. Steve brings along his notebook so he can begin writing his script. Before he enters the courtroom, he is seated in the same room as a few guards and the stenographer of the trial. They begin talking about the trial as if Steve was not there. A guard makes a point to say that the trial should not last long as it is a motion case.
Steve is on trial for taking part in a robbery that ended in murder. At this stage, only two of the participants are on trial—James King and Steve—since the other two—Richard "Bobo" Evans and Osvaldo Cruz—have entered into a deal by pleading guilty. When the trial first begins Steve has a flashback a movie he saw in his film club and the discussion he has with his teacher Mr. Sawicki in which they discuss the concept of predictability.
The trial begins with the three lawyers—Sandra Petrocelli, the prosecutor, Kathy O’ Brien who is representing Steve and Asa Briggs who is representing James King—giving their opening statements. Jose Delgado, a clerk who works at the store that was robbed is brought to the stand and questioned by both Petrocelli and Briggs. As Jose steps down from the bench, Petrocelli calls on Salvatore Zinzi, a criminal who spent time on Riker’s Island who claims to have had information from a fellow inmate about the holdup at the store. All three lawyers question him, then the story cuts to a flashback of Steve as a young child with his friend Tony. The boys are throwing rocks in a park when Steve accidentally hits a woman who is walking with her boyfriend. Steve tells Tony to run, but he doesn’t and is punched by the man. Tony tells Steve he’s going to get an uzi and blow the guys brains out.
Wendell Bolden, the man Zinzi receives his information from, is questioned next. He reveals that Bobo Evans is the man he got his stolen cigarettes from, who says he was involved in the store robbery. The scene changes to a flashback to Steve and James sitting on a porch with a few friends; James expresses his need for cash and how if he had a crew it’d be much easier. The novel switches back to the trial and the questioning of Bolden. The judge then ends for the day, reminding jurors not to speak with anyone about the case. Steve writes in his notebook what he thinks is happening in the trial; he mentions the idea that despite O’Brien’s assumptions about Petrocelli’s defense, she is trying to make a point to the jury that Steve and James are hardened criminals just like the men on the stand. Steve believes that he is progressing well in his screenplay and shares it with another inmate.
On the second day of the trial a detective is brought in to give his testimony. He relays how he gathered his information, then the novel cuts to his first meeting with Steve at the precinct in which he says James accuses him of being the one to pull the trigger. It then jumps to Steve writing about what he imagines death row to be like.
The novel then returns to the courtroom where Petrocelli calls to the stand the youngest of the four accused: Osvaldo Cruz. Steve then writes of a time he spent hanging out with Cruz and his crew in which he boasts about his gang affiliation. Cruz tells Steve that he isn't hard and when something actually happens he won't be involved because of that weakness. Cruz talks about being afraid of Bobo and his threat against his life as well as his mother's and says this is the only reason he participated. O'Brien uses his fear of Bobo as a questioning technique, as he has committed heinous acts in the name of his gang, The Diablos, yet says he was afraid of Bobo. Even in his conversation with Steve he says, "He don't have no choice. He mess with me and the Diablos will burn him up."
Steve is visited by his father in the novel and it is revealed that he is even more unlike his counterparts. Mr. Harmon details what he wished Steve's life would have been expressing his thoughts of him attending Morehouse College as he had. Steve next details various news reports covering the murder at the drugstore, including one featuring Mayor Giuliani speaking about how everyone deserves protection. Steve then documents his arrest and his mother's panicked reaction as his brother Jerry looked on.
The novel returns to the trial, but Steve writes in his notes that he refuses to write about what happened in the drugstore because he doesn't want to think about it. The medical examiner and Detective Williams are questioned. O'Brien warns Steve to not write anything in his notebook he doesn't want the prosecutor to see.
According to Cruz, the original plan was that Steve would go into the drugstore, check for police or citizens, and then make a signal if the coast was clear. After King and Bobo robbed Nesbitt, Cruz would be responsible for slowing down any person who chased them. All sources indicate that Nesbitt drew a gun to defend himself against the robbers, which one of the robbers then wrestled him for, causing Nesbitt's death when the gun discharged. Bobo takes the witness stand to confirm that James King pulled the trigger and that Steve, who he hardly knew, was meant to signal an all-clear, though Bobo admits that he never learned what the exact signal was, since he assumed King knew and simply followed King's lead.
King's lawyer, Asa Briggs, argues that neither King nor Steve were ever involved in the robbery, since the only eyewitness to the robbery, the elderly Lorelle Henry, mentioned seeing merely two robbers, which Briggs argues can be accounted for by Bobo and Cruz alone. Lorelle Henry testifies as a key witness that she saw two men begin an argument with Nesbitt and seize him by the collar before she hurriedly left the store, moments before the shooting.
Steve's own lawyer, Kathy O'Brien, is doubtful about Steve's innocence, but wisely has him distance himself from King. Careful readers can gradually acquire a stronger conviction about Steve's part in the crime. Steve appears to know King and Cruz only as remote acquaintances, and to know Bobo even less. Steve testifies that he does not particularly remember where he was on the day of the robbery, but that he certainly was not a participant. O'Brien and Briggs systematically continue to cast the honesty of Petrocelli's witnesses in doubt. Although many of the testimonies contradict, even the most incriminating toward Steve claims only that he acted as a lookout in the first stage of the robbery; even so, the death penalty is a possibility for him.
Others testify, including a teacher at Steve's school named George Sawicki, who heads the film club. Sawicki serves as a character witness, proudly defending Steve's moral character. The three lawyers—Briggs, O'Brien, and Petrocelli—finally make their closing statements, before the jury decides on a verdict. James King is found guilty of murder and sent to prison for 25 years while Steve is found innocent. As Steve triumphantly moves to hug O'Brien, she oddly turns away, leaving Steve to wonder why. The end of the novel takes place five months after Steve has been cleared of all charges and released from prison and about a year since the initial robbery. Steve has continued his filmmaking, but his father has moved away, creating a palpable distance between the two. He is still confused as to O'Brien's cold demeanor at the end of the trial.