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When young Nick Romano is arrested for the murder of a policeman during a robbery, he begs lawyer Andrew Morton to defend him. Andy reluctantly agrees to take the case after Nick swears that he is innocent and, although a bartender insists that he saw Nick running away from the scene of the crime, Nick's friends, Sunshine and Butch, confirm his alibi. In his opening speech at the trial, Andy, who left the slums to become a lawyer, tells the jury about Nick's background: Andy met Nick six years earlier after his father was jailed for killing someone in self-defense. Despite Andy's efforts to have him released from jail, Nick's father dies in jail of a heart attack. Because the family now has no income, they are forced to move to a bad neighborhood, and Nick joins some of the other boys in petty thievery. Later, Nick is arrested for stealing a car and is sentenced to a brutal reform school, where his friend dies of pneumonia after being punished. After his release, Nick meets Emma, a poor but respectable girl who lives with her alcoholic aunt, and starts dating her. Eventually, he falls in love with her, but refuses to become involved with her as he does not want to ruin her life. Nick is arrested again, and social worker Adele Patterson begs Andy to help him. Andy befriends Nick, but Nick, feeling resentful about what he believes to be charity, steals money from Andy and angers him. After Nick and Emma marry, Andy again tries to help him go straight, but Nick's quick temper and disreputable background cause him to be fired from a succession of jobs. Finally, after Emma reveals that she is pregnant, Nick bitterly advises her to give the baby away. His motto, he tells her, is "live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse." Convinced that Nick no longer loves her, Emma kills herself. A few months later, Nick is charged with murder. Back in the courtroom, the prosecution presents its case, and Andy first casts doubt on the bartender's identification of Nick by proving that his memory is not reliable. He then attacks the credibility of subsequent witnesses. The prosecution then calls Juan Rodriguez, a friend of Nick, who previously stated that Nick had committed the murder. On the witness stand, however, Juan claims that the police threatened him with deportation unless he swore that Nick was guilty. During the defense's presentation, District Attorney Kerman is able to create uncertainty about Nick's ailbi. Andy then calls Nick to the stand. At first, Nick's testimony holds up, but after intense badgering by Kerman, Nick finally breaks down and admits his guilt. Before sentencing, Andy makes one last statement on Nick's behalf, condemning society for his crimes, and begs the court for mercy. Although moved, the judge sentences Nick to death. Before Nick's execution, Andy promises to help other boys like him.