The small town of Clanton, Ford County, is shaken by the violent rape of 10 year old Tonya Hailey. Outraged, Tonya's father Carl Lee shoots the two rapists as they emerge from their court hearing.
Carl Lee is charged with murder, and he enlists the help of his friend, Jake Brigance. Given the town's racism and corruption, it is almost certain that Carl will be pronounced guilty and sentenced to prison. It is also almost guaranteed that the entire jury will be white. Jake decides to use the insanity defense.
The brother of one of the murdered rapists enlists the help of the KKK to intimidate Jake, leading him to send his wife and daughter away until the trial is over. Despite several intimidation attempts by the KKK, Jake continues to defend Carl Lee and successfully discredits the state's psychiatrists in court. The jury proclaims Carl Lee not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.