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At San Quentin penitentiary in California, convicted thief and rapist "Whit" Whittier waits on death row in cell 2455 for his rapidly approaching execution date. The warden visits Whit, who gives him his last will and testament, which leaves the money he has earned from a book about his life of crime to a single mother. Whit observes that despite six years spent on death row studying law and writing a successful book, he still has no understanding of why a man turns to crime. After the warden departs, Whit reflects upon his life: Whit grows up with kind, loving parents, but as he is a a sickly child, the family moves from Michigan to Los Angeles. The family settles in to their new life comfortably until a freak car accident leaves Whit's mother paralyzed. The Whittiers are quickly overwhelmed by medical bills and slide into poverty, driving Whit's father to attempt suicide. As years go by, Whit's frustration grows and as a teenager he begins stealing food and lying to his parents about having a part-time job. These petty thefts and Whit's driving skill eventually lead to his involvement with a gang of young hoodlums led by Skipper Adams. After a year of larceny and car thefts, Skip is arrested and informs on the rest of the gang, who are arrested and placed in reform school. Furious at Skip's betrayal, Whit beats him up and gains a reputation as an incorrigible. During his incarceration, Whit spends several stretches doing hard labor or in solitary. Upon his parole, Whit, still resentful of authority, purchases a gun and starts another gang that commits numerous holdups and car thefts. Whit takes up with a young blonde, Doll, who shies away from Whit's criminal activities despite her affection for him. One night Whit and his gang steal a police car and shoot an officer before destroying the car. The gang is arrested and Whit is tried, convicted and sentenced to twenty-six years in San Quentin. When a rehabilitation program is started in Chino, Whit signs up and, after a period of calculated good behavior, is moved to the Honor Farm. With the help of free gang members Monk and Al, Whit escapes from the low security prison to be reunited with Doll, but is recaptured quickly and sentenced to four years in the harsh Folsom prison. Again upon parole, Whit returns to Los Angeles and pulls together the remaining members of his old gang to take up attacks on racketeer runners. After a reckless confrontation with mob boss Johnny Albert, Whit robs him, then divides the sizeable haul among his gang before they split up for good. Shortly afterward, a series of brutal attacks begin on couples in lovers lane, with the men being pistol-whipped and the women raped by an attacker whom the newspapers nickname the "Red Light Beast." Whit returns to Doll, but is angered when he learns that she suspects him of being the "Beast." One night, another couple is assaulted and their car is stolen by Whit and Monk, who are chased by the police and apprehended after crashing. At police headquarters, Whit insists he is not the rapist, but his arrogance and bravado is abruptly deflated when the captain privately informs him that his mother died the night before. As he has not been formerly charged, Whit is allowed to go to the funeral parlor, where his father admits he managed to keeping Whit's criminal activities from his mother. Whit is also taken aback to learn that Doll has fulfilled a promise she made him long ago and given the Whittiers money over the years. Returning to jail, Whit is charged, but when his lawyer announces his withdrawal from the case, Whit decides to represent himself. Despite his diligent study of law and a court presentation he believes refutes the eyewitness testimony against him, Whit is stunned when he receives no sympathy from the jury or the judge and is found guilty. His request for a mistrial on a technicality is denied, but Whit persists and manages to get his case heard before the Supreme Court, but to no avail. In the present, as dawn breaks on the day of his execution, Whit accepts complete responsibility for his life of crime, but still wonders what purpose his death will serve. As he despairs, the warden arrives with the news that Whit has been granted a stay of execution and one hundred more days of life.