Can an over-the-hill journalist uncover the evidence that can prove a death row inmate's innocence just hours before his execution?
Members of the Press, Race Against Time, Death Row, Amateur Sleuths, Miscarriage of Justice
Steve Everett (Clint Eastwood), an Oakland journalist recovering from alcoholism, is assigned to cover the execution of convicted murderer Frank Beechum (Isaiah Washington) following the death in a car wreck of Everett's colleague, Michelle Ziegler (Mary McCormack), who had originally been assigned to the story.
Everett, despite instructions to the contrary from his editor, investigates the background to the case and comes to suspect that Beechum has been wrongly convicted. He gets permission from his editor's boss to investigate, and is told that the top editor would call the Governor, and that would do the job, if Everett gets hard proof. He thus has a little over 12 hours to confirm his hunch and save Beechum.
Everett interviews a prosecution witness, Dale Porterhouse (Michael Jeter), who saw Beechum at the store where the shooting took place and said in his statement to the police that he saw him carrying a gun. Everett questions Porterhouse's account, saying that, because of the layout of the store, he could not have seen a gun in Beechum's hand and that he maybe said what he did in order to impress his co-workers.
Everett confronts D.A. Cecelia Nussbaum (Frances Fisher) for putting an innocent man on death row. She reveals that a third person was interviewed after the crime, a young man, Warren (Bernard Hill), who claimed he had only stopped at the store to buy a soda from a machine outside and saw nothing. Everett decides that Warren, never called as a witness, is probably the real killer. He breaks into the deceased reporter's house, suspecting that she had been onto something and finds her file on Warren. Meanwhile, Warden Luther Plunkett (Bernard Hill) also starts to have doubts about Beechum's guilt.
Everett falls out with his bosses and is fired on the spot, but he points out that his contract entitles him to adequate notice. They ask him how much notice he requires, and, looking at his watch, he says 6 hours and 7 minutes. While working his notice he tracks down Angela Russel (Hattie Winston), Warren's grandmother. She tells him that her grandson Warren could not have been the murderer, and berates him for the lack of interest from the press when Warren himself was killed in a mugging two years after Amy's murder.
The prison chaplain misrepresents an exchange with Beechum as a confession to the crime. Everett hears about this on the radio and loses heart; on top of this, his wife (Diane Venora) has found out about his affair with his editor's wife and has turned him out of the house. He is about to start drinking again when he sees a piece on TV that shows a photograph of Amy wearing a locket, a locket he realizes he has seen before, being worn by Angela Russel.
Everett drives back to Angela's house. When he tells her about the locket she realizes the truth: her grandson was the guilty man. Everett now has to get Angela to the Governor's house in order to persuade him to order a stay of execution, but it might be too late. The execution uses 3 drugs: a sleep inducer called thiopental, a second drug that paralyzes muscles, and a third, lethal one. As they approach the Governor's mansion, the first drug has already been injected into Frank's bloodstream and he has lost consciousness. The Governor calls, and the doctors try to revive him, while his wife Bonnie (Lisa Gay Hamilton) bangs on the window calling out for her husband to wake up.
Six months later, a week before Christmas, Everett is out buying a stuffed hippo for his daughter, and the store's proprietor mentions that he is famous and may even win a Pulitzer. He catches sight of Frank and his family doing their Christmas shopping; until now we had been left in doubt whether Frank had lived. Steve and Frank acknowledge each other, but Frank's daughter shouts for him to "come on," which Frank does, and the film ends as the song "Why Should I Care" sung by Diana Krall plays while the credits roll. "Why Should I Care" was co-written by Clint Eastwood, Carole Bayer Sager, & Linda Thompson-Jenner.