World-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.
Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillan (Jamie Foxx) is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death row for the murder of Ronda Morrison – a crime he did not commit. A few years later, lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama to start offering legal services to death row clients. Bryan finds Johnny D’s case and realizes just how thin it is, and finds that all of Johnny D’s family has an alibi for him that the police ignored – racism is pervasive in the south, and Johnny D had an affair with a white woman – and that other witness statements were coerced. With Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan starts the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan eventually gets the other witness, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) to admit the police threatened him to get his witness statement. Bryan takes the case to court, where the court refuses to grant Johnny D a retrial despite the evidence, so Bryan goes on 60 Minutes which brings national attention to the case. Johnny D gets a new trial, and though the district attorney at first refuses to let the charges drop, he eventually relents, and Johnny D is freed, and eventually he and Bryan testify in front of congress about the death penalty.
In 1987 in Alabama, Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillan (Jamie Foxx) is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death row for the murder of Ronda Morrison – a crime he did not commit. Meanwhile, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a Harvard law student interning on death row cases. After he graduates, he moves from Delaware to Alabama to start offering legal services to death row clients with grant money he’s been given. He meets up with his one contact, local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) to start their venture, but she can’t find anyone to rent them office space, so he stays in her home and they work from there.
Bryan goes to meet with the death row clients and is forced to undergo a strip search – not a requirement for attorneys – by the cruel prison staff. He meets with multiple inmates, including Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a former Vietnam war vet with extreme PTSD who set off a bomb that killed a woman. When he meets with Johnny D, Bryan is rebuffed completely – Johnny D tells him in a town this corrupt and racist the truth doesn’t matter, and he’s wasting his time. But when Bryan reviews the case against Johnny D, he finds it to be completely thin.
The only evidence against him are two witness statements – and the star witness’s, Ralph Myers’s – a lifelong convict – story makes no sense at all – he says that he for some reason went with Johnny D to the crime scene and was held at gunpoint, but also he was alone for a huge stretch of time and for some reason didn’t flee. Bryan goes to meet Johnny D’s family and friends, who all corroborate that Johnny was with them at a fish fry during the time of the murder. Bryan finds out that Johnny had an affair with a white woman in town, and suspects this is why the police choice him to be their fall guy. A young man, Darnell, says he knows the second witness statement, from a young black man, is a lie – he says that man told him the police threatened him with charges if he didn’t say so. Bryan gets Darnell to agree to testify to that, and Johnny D is so impressed with his follow-through that he agrees to let Bryan work on his case.
Bryan meets with the new district attorney, Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), and presents him with the evidence he has collected in Johnny D’s case, and hopes he will have his cooperation since the evidence clearly doesn’t add up – but Chapman stonewalls him and says he will do everything he can to ensure that Johnny D, who he says is clearly the murderer, stays in prison. One night, Eva gets a threatening phone call at the house, telling her in racist terms that if she keeps helping Bryan and the death row inmates she’s dead – and that there’s a bomb under her house. Everyone gets out of the house but the police don’t find anything – Bryan tells Eva he understands if she wants to quit, but she says absolutely not… she wants to set an example for her kids. Eva and Bryan are able to secure real office space and open the Equal Justice Initiative.
Bryan continues to work on Herb and Johnny’s cases. The fact that Herb was a war vet and has PTSD was never introduced at trial, so despite all his appeals being used up, Bryan files for a stay of execution. Meanwhile, the police arrest Darnell saying he perjured himself with his statement – Bryan angrily goes to see Chapman and the Sheriff, and tells them what they’re doing to Darnell will never hold up. They drop the charges, but Darnell backs out, too scared. With his one witness down, Bryan decides to go visit Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) in prison. He tries to coerce him to come forward and tell the truth, but Ralph demurs. Bryan digs and finds audiotapes of Myers’s original statement, where he flat out refuses the Sheriff’s demand to frame an innocent man.
Bryan is informed that Herb’s stay is denied. Eva takes him to the prison since Herb asked him to be there. On death row, Johnny D and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson), give Herb their support as he is taken to be executed. Bryan meets with him, and since he had no family, he tells Bryan he asked for his military flag to be sent to him. Bryan watches from the gallery in horror as Herb is put into the electric chair. The other men clang their cups onto their bars so that Herb can hear their support through the grates, and Herb is executed. Bryan returns to Eva, devastated.
Bryan returns to Myers, and presents him the information he knows: that his original statement was completely different, and also that he was transferred to death row for an evening before he confessed. Myers tells Bryan that he was burned as a child in foster care, and the Sheriff sent him to death row on the night of a man’s execution. When he smelled the burning flesh, he told the sheriff he would say whatever he wanted to get out of there.
With all his evidence, Bryan files to get Johnny D a new trial, and calls many witnesses to the stand – all the people who saw Johnny at the fish fry, a police officer who admits he was asked to lie about the crime, and finally Myers. Though he hesitates, Myers eventually admits he lied and that Johnny D is innocent. Though it seems like a slam dunk, the local court still refuses to grant a retrial, saying there’s no way to know when Myers was lying. Everyone is devastated.
Bryan promises it isn’t over, and will appeal this decision out of local courts and up to the state supreme court. 60 Minutes does a story on the case which draws national attention to the story, and the state grants Johnny D a new trial. Bryan is sure that Chapman will agree to dismiss all charges, but Chapman wants another trial and for Johnny to stay on death row. Bryan goes to Chapman’s house and confronts him, arguing for justice and the truth, but Chapman will not buckle.
At the motion for dismissal of charges, Bryan makes a moving and impassioned speech about the law, justice, and fairness, and argues that in a just world these charges must be dismissed. Chapman acquiesces, and allows for the charges to be dismissed – Johnny D is freed and returns home to his family. Later, Bryan and Johnny testify in front of congress about the death penalty.
The post-script tells us that EJI has lessened or overturned over 140 death penalty cases, and then tells us the rate of death row convictions later proven innocent – one of nine. Bryan and Johnny D remained friends until Johnny died, Eva continues to run EJI to this day, and decades later, in 2015, Bryan was able to prove false evidence in Anthony Ray Hinton’s case and finally get him released from death row.