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On Memorial Day, in a small Southern town, Mary Clay and her friend, Imogene Mayfield, go for a soda after they are dismissed for the holiday from class at the local business school. Mary discovers she has left her vanity case in her desk, and when she returns to the empty building, she is brutally murdered. Andy Griffin, the ambitious district attorney who has his eye on a Senate seat, seizes the opportunity to create a sensational case against Robert Hale, the mild-mannered Northerner who was Mary's teacher. The trial attracts Michael Gleason, a famous Northern attorney, to defend Hale, but he is unable to convince the jury of Hale's innocence despite the uncertain testimonies of the president of the business school, Carlisle P. Buxton, the school janitor, Tump Redwine, Mary's boyfriend, Joe Turner, and the barber, Jim Timberlake. Although the media accuses Griffin of fighting the Civil War in the courtroom, his tactics are successful, and Hale is sentenced to death. Gleason appeals to the governor, who knows his professional future hinges on his decision to commute Hale's sentence. The governor sacrifices his career and changes the penalty to life imprisonment, but before Hale can be safely taken out of town, he is lynched by Mary's vengeful brothers. As Griffin embarks on his race for Senator, Hale's wife Sybil demands that he accept responsiblity for her innocent husband's death, but he denies her accusations, and only briefly wonders if justice was served.