Presumed Innocent (1990) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • As a lawyer investigates the murder of a colleague, he finds himself more connected to the crime than anyone else.

    Will S
  • Rozat Sabich - Rusty to most that know him, even in formal circumstances - is the Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Kindle County, Illinois. His wife, Barbara Sabich, has been struggling with focus on completing her Ph.D. dissertation in Mathemetics - a thus far ten year process - she who nonetheless is applying for a college teaching position. They are generally in a loving, supportive marriage, Barbara who seems to have gotten over Rusty's infidelity with his colleague Carolyn Polhemus, an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney. Carolyn is ambitious, she who, in part, used Rusty to try and climb up the ladder. Barbara will still throw the issue of Carolyn in his face whenever there are problems between the two. Rusty and Carolyn's affair is unknown to others in their personal and professional circles. Rusty is handed the most personal case of his career when his boss and mentor, Chief Prosecuting Attorney Raymond Horgan, assigns him the case to discover who killed Carolyn, her dead body found in her apartment in what looks initially to be a violent rape, with Carolyn eventually strangled and no sign of forced entry, leading to the belief her killer was whoever her lover or possibly someone she prosecuted. Raymond, who is in a difficult reelection campaign, wants a quick resolution to the investigation, as "finding the killer" will greatly increase his chances of getting reelected. Rusty tries to dissuade Raymond from giving him the case because of the affair of which Raymond is unaware, with Rusty eventually having no choice but to accept barring disclosure of the affair. As Rusty proceeds with the investigation, he takes steps to hide the affair largely to protect Barbara and their adolescent son, Nat Sabich. Those measures come back to bite him when they and other evidence collected by the police lead to him being charged for Carolyn's murder. Rusty hires Sandy Stern, one of his toughest adversaries in a number of previous cases. During the court proceedings, many involved do whatever they can protect their own interest regardless of the truth. Beyond Rusty being convicted or acquitted, a question thus becomes if the truth matters or if the murderer will ever be discovered.

  • Carolyn Polhemus, an up-and-comer in the Kindle County D.A.'s Office, is found viciously murdered in her home. Immediately her boss, D.A. Raymond Horgan and his chief deputy, Rusty Sabich start an investigation. Horgan, however, is in the middle of a campaign to keep his job, which he ultimately loses to former subordinate Nico Della Guardia. Della Guardia and his new deputy, Tommy Molto, decide to prosecute Sabich for Carolyn's murder when it is revealed that Sabich was a former lover of Polhemus. Horgan also turns against his former subordinate, and Rusty soon realizes he has few friends left - except for Sandy Stern, whom he has often faced on the other side of the courtroom, and who will become his new defense lawyer when he is put on trial for murder. Investigation by Stern and his team leads them to think that Rusty was framed for murder - by Molto, who wanted Sabich's job and was trying to punish him for backing Horgan. Is Rusty Sabich innocent...or is he a murderer?

  • When a female D.A. is killed, the D.A. assigns his assistant to handle the investigation. Only problem is that he was having an affair with her. And the evidence reveals that he is the killer. So he suspects that the man who wants his boss' job is trying to frame him. He turns to Sandy Stern a highly celebrated defense attorney to represent him.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Rozat "Rusty" Sabich (Harrison Ford) is a prosecutor in a mid-Western American city and the right-hand man of Kindle County Prosecuting Attorney Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy). Sabich is married with a young son. He arrives at work one day to learn that his colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi) has been tortured and murdered in her apartment. Horgan insists that Sabich take charge of the investigation, especially since the election for County PA is due in a few days' time and that Tommy Molto (Joe Grifasi), the acting head of Homicide, has left to join the rival campaign of Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian).

    Sabich faces a conflict of interest since he had an affair with Polhemus. She dumped him when he showed little ambition, like running for office against Horgan, and will therefore be of little use to her and her own career. Sabich has since made up with his wife, Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), though he is still obsessed with Polhemus and finds it hard to get her out of his mind. While Polhemus developed a reputation for aggressively prosecuting rapists and similar criminals, she had become an ambitious career-woman who slept around to advance herself.

    Although Detective Harold Greer (Tucker Smallwood) is initially in charge of the case, Sabich instead calls in his friend Detective Lipranzer (John Spencer) and persuades him to narrow the inquiry to focus on men that she put behind bars, thus excluding his relationship with Polhemus from the investigation. However, Sabich soon realizes that Molto is making inquiries of his own into the case.

    It becomes evident that some of the evidence suggests that the killer knew something about how police gather evidence and covered it up accordingly - suggesting a cop, a private detective, or even a PA. Semen was found in the victim's body but the sperm is dead, leading the coroner to conclude that the killer is sterile. The killer's blood type was A, the same as Sabich's, but he is a father, and obviously fertile.

    When Della Guardia wins the election for County PA, he and Molto are quick to accuse Sabich himself of the crime and pull out all the stops to gather evidence against him, including the way he conducted the investigation. The evidence includes a beer glass found in Polhemus' apartment with Sabich's fingerprints on it and fibers matching his home carpet that match fibers found on her body.

    The situation is compounded when Horgan suddenly turns against his friend and former protégé and claims that Sabich himself had insisted on handling the investigation - when in fact he didn't - which the prosecution uses to back their claim of a cover-up by Sabich. Horgan learns of Sabich's affair with Polhemus, just as Sabich learns that Raymond also had an affair with Polhemus. Called to testify, Horgan doesn't reveal what he knows about Sabich's affair with Polhemus.

    Sabich calls on Sandy Stern (Raul Julia), a top defense attorney with whom he has often clashed in court. Stern acknowledges Sabich as his "toughest adversary" but agrees to take the case. When the trial begins, the prosecution reveals that the beer glass is missing from the evidence room. It is a crucial piece of the prosecution's case and Stern persuades Judge Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield) to suppress the fingerprint evidence. Sabich's wife Barbara is surprisingly supportive throughout the trial.

    In the course of his investigation, Sabich discovers that Polhemus had acquired a "B-file" (meaning bribery) from Prosecuting Attorney Horgan which detailed a bribery case involving a law-enforcement official. It describes a man named Leon (Leland Gantt) who paid a $1500 bribe to get his case of public indecency thrown out of court. Carolyn Polhemus was his probation officer before she joined the Prosecuting Attorney's office and set up the bribe. The deputy prosecutor in charge of the case was Tommy Molto.

    The main thrust of Stern's defense is that Molto and Della Guard have set Sabich up to help Nico Della Guardia's election campaign against Raymond or, Stern hints, as part of a cover-up of a bribery case that involved Molto. He implies that the details are revealed in the missing B-file. Sabich demands that he be allowed to testify, but his Stern says he would only implicate himself. Sabitch's friend and fellow detective Lipranzer finds Leon. Leon reveals that the official who took the bribe was in fact Judge Larren Lyttle, the same judge handling Sabich's trial.

    Stern calls the coroner, Dr "Painless" Kumagai, to the stand and while questioning him, produces contradictory evidence showing that Polhemus had a tubal ligation, something that Kumagai had either failed to notice during the autopsy or had neglected to include in his report. He implies that the coroner must have mishandled or even falsified the evidence because a woman with a tubal ligation would not need to use contraceptive jelly like that found in the seminal fluid in her vagina. The prosecution persuades the judge to accept testimony from a fingerprint expert about the fingerprints on the glass, but since they are unable to produce the glass itself, the judge tells the juror that this introduces reasonable doubt into the prosecution's case.

    The next morning, the judge announces that based on the mishandling of the autopsy and the missing glass and the lack of any proof that Sabich and Polhemus had a relationship, he dismisses the case. Unknown to the jury, the judge was also influenced by the possibility that the missing B-file, which documented him accepting bribes, might turn up.

    Sabich presses his defense attorney Stern for information and learns, in private, that both Stern and Prosecuting Attorney Horgan knew that Judge Lyttle had been accepting bribes and that Polhemus was his courier. Lyttle had been going through a bad period after a divorce. He offered his resignation but the County Prosecuting Attorney Horgan believed that he was in fact a brilliant judge and should be given another chance. Stern raised the issue of the bribery investigation during the trail in a way that implied he knew what it revealed, causing the judge to think it's contents might be made public. On the whole, Stern concluded Judge Lyttle handled the case in a rightful manner.

    Detective Lipranzer later reveals to Sabich on a boat that he has the missing beer glass. He failed to return it to the evidence room when Molto, in a bureaucratic foul-up, signed it as "returned to evidence" when in fact it was still in the evidence lab. The evidence lab returned it to Lipranzer after he had already been taken off the case. Since nobody asked for the glass he simply kept it in his desk drawer. As far as Lipranzer was concerned: "The lady was bad news." He gives the glass to Sabich who tosses it into a nearby river.

    Sabich is in the clear, though he does not appear to be too pleased about the manner by which this was achieved.

    Some time later, while doing some work in his garden, Sabich comes across a small combination hammer, hatchet, and nail puller with blood and hair on it. The tool matches the coroner's description of the murder weapon. Sabich realizes that the blood and hair belong to Polhemus. His wife sees him washing the hammer and confesses to the crime. In a detached state, talking in the third person, Barbara confesses that, following his affair, she fell into a depression. She even considered suicide before deciding that it would be better to destroy the destroyer, i.e. Polhemus. She bought beer glasses like those they had given to Polhemus as a house-warming gift and surreptitiously got Sabich's fingerprints on one of them. She also captured some seminal fluid from her vagina after sex with her husband and froze it. Arranging to meet Polhemus at her apartment, she struck Carolyn and killed her when her back was turned. She used a syringe to insert the seminal fluid into Polhemus' vagina, making it look like her husband had sex with her before she died, implicating him in her death. She claims that she did not actually intend to frame her husband; she assumed that as the investigator he would soon realize that she had killed Polhemus and would file it as an unsolved case.

    Despite the implications of his wife's mental instability, Sabich cannot bring himself to separate his son from his mother and continues to cover-up the crime. In the end, justice was served.

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