Based on a novel by Ward Greene, an ambitious prosecutor in the South uses circumstantial evidence to convict a northern teacher of murder.
On Memorial Day for confederate soldiers a teacher is told to cancel his class. Mary Clay (Lana Turner) likes teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris) and goes back for her lipstick. Joe Turner (Elisha Cook Jr.) goes to meet her and sees Hale come out. Hale goes home and discusses with his wife Sybil Hale (Gloria Dickson) moving back to the north. Sybil sees blood on his coat. News reporter Bill Brock (Allyn Joslyn) hangs around the police station for news. Janitor Tump Redwine (Clinton Rosemond) denies he killed the girl found in the elevator shaft. Politically ambitious Andy Griffin (Claude Rains) promises the three Clay brothers he will prosecute, and Luther Clay threatens to kill Tump. Griffin detains Carlysle Buxton (E. Allyn Warren) and questions Joe Turner, who says he saw Hale leaving. Imogene Mayfield (Linda Perry) tells Brock that Mary was crazy about Hale. Joe Turner tells Shattuck Clay (Trevor Bardette) that he loved Mary. Brock tells Griffin about Hale.
Hale is going to send a telegram to Chicago when he is arrested, and his coat is returned with a blood stain. Hale tells Griffin that he is innocent, but Griffin locks him up. Reporters calls on Sybil Hale, who is told and faints. Brock steals a photo, and Sybil says Hale felt that southerners did not accept him. Griffin hears that Hale would be convicted and indicts him. Sybil visits her husband, who expects to die; but she gets northern help. Detective Pindar (Granville Bates) comes to investigate. Buxton brings Tump a lawyer. Pindar talks to Hale and tries to question the barber. Hale's mother (Elisabeth Risdon) arrives, and Gleason (Otto Kruger) comes to defend Hale. A brick is thrown into his car window.
In the trial Griffin speaks to the jury and objects to an outburst from Hale's mother. The Clay brothers urge their mother to attend, and she cries out. The trial is announced like a baseball game. Gleason questions Joe Turner. The barber testifies he shaved Hale but denies he cut him. Janitor Tump says Hale was nervous; but Gleason gets him to admit he was asleep. Hale testifies he was not there at the time and says that hatred between south and north is not the issue. Gleason speaks against prejudice, and Griffin argues for circumstantial evidence. One juror holds out but is pressured. Hale is convicted and sentenced. The governor tells his wife many have written for commutation. She suggests he retire, and he commutes Hale to life imprisonment. A mob takes Hale off a train. Brock tells Griffin he will help him get elected senator. Sybil Hale brings back a check to Griffin, who says he will prosecute those who killed her husband; but she blames Griffin and Brock, who wonder if Hale did it.
This film dramatically depicts many southern prejudices and was not shown in some theaters in the South. Though fictional, it is similar to the infamous Mary Phagan case of 1913. Some believe that the controversy of this movie prevented studios from producing such pictures for many years to come.