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In New York's Spanish Harlem, a 15-year-old Puerto Rican boy is stabbed to death by three hoodlums from an Italian street gang. When the three teenagers are apprehended, Dan Cole, the politically ambitious district attorney, announces that he will demand the death penalty, but his prosecutor, Assistant D. A. Hank Bell (himself the product of a slum environment), decides to remain impartial until he has conducted a thorough investigation. His task is complicated by the fact that his former fiancée, Mary Di Pace, is the mother of one of the trio. Furthermore, Hank's wife, Karin, is a Vassar liberal staunchly opposed to capital punishment. Hank's probings prove that the murdered blind boy was actually the head of a Puerto Rican gang as well as a pimp for his 13-year-old sister. In addition, Hank suspects that young Danny Di Pace did not participate in the murder but is "ashamed" to admit his innocence. As the trial nears, Karin is threatened by youths brandishing switchblade knives, and Hank himself is beaten up in a subway. Suddenly blind with rage, he nearly kills one of the Puerto Rican youths who menaced his wife; only then does he comprehend the insane call for vengeance that motivated the youthful killers. At the trial he presents all of the conflicting evidence and gets Danny to admit that he never stabbed anyone in his life. One of the killers, Arthur Reardon, is sentenced to imprisonment for 20 years; the other, the moronic Aposto, is sent to a mental institution. Though Hank has destroyed his political career, he has remained true to his conscience and his personal integrity.