Lawson Russell (Gooding), who'd been a successful defense lawyer in New Orleans, suffered a crisis of conscience on learning that his client Thurmon Parks III really committed the rape and murder he's accused. His attempt at withdrawing from the case was denied, and Lawson then openly denounced his client before the jury, resulting in a mistrial then him being disbarred for life.
After meeting an old Englishman who promptly dies and leaves his manuscript, Lawson publishes the book as his own to great profit. Little does he know that in fact the plot – a serial killer targeting defense attorneys – had actually happened. Lawson is promptly accused of the crimes, due to the book along with evidence planted in his house. Escaping, he goes on the run to find the killer and thus clear himself.
This film contains examples of the following tropes:
- An Aesop: Criminal defense lawyers are bad, especially if they get obviously guilty people off (although they are duty-bound to give their client the best possible legal representation). Also, do not plagiarize; it can get you set up for murder.
- Amoral Attorney: The focus of the killings and the movie's central Aesop. All the victims are criminal defense attorneys who'd been targeted for not caring about whom their clients hurt, only winning, as the film condemns.
- Clear My Name: Lawson embarks on a quest to do this, while simultaneously fleeing the police.
- Frame-Up: Lawson experiences one. The book was used by the killer to test Lawson to see if his change of heart was genuine, while in disguise as a retired Englishman. He then "dies" and leaves Lawson the book...who passes it off as his own, setting himself up as the suspect when its found the murders it depicts actually happened, along with other evidence planted by the killer.
- Hollywood Law: The killer's family was killed by a drunk driver, who got off because police didn't read his Miranda rights correctly. However, drunk driving cases heavily involve physical evidence (breathalyzer, blood tests, etc.). It's thus very unlikely the whole case would hinge on any statement he made (which is all that Miranda applies to).
- In Medias Res: How the film opens (with Lawson in jail), and working back from there.
- It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: The celebrations are going on in the first New Orleans scene, while Lawson has his crisis of conscience. He almost gets murdered by a man in costume as Satan, though he's unaware at the time.
- Karma Houdini: Thurmon Parks III, who'd murdered and raped a young woman, was acquitted after being retried on the charges following Lawson's being disbarred over openly denouncing him in the first trial after he'd learned Parks did it. Nothing happens to him in the film, he's alive, well and free by the end.
- Master of Disguise: The Serial Killer turns out to be one of these, disguising himself as an old Englishman, a young police officer, and a biker in succession without Lawson realizing they're the same man until he finds his costumes. Justified as he is a drama professor, and obviously a talented actor too.
- Meaningful Name:
- Lawson, a defense attorney (before he was disbarred) and son of a judge.
- Also the aliases that the killer, a professor of drama, uses: Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. Both famous playwrights, known especially for their versions of Faustus, in which an ambitious man is destroyed by selling his soul for power, a non-too subtle jab at Lawson in particular and lawyers generally, according to him.
- On top of that, Crows are part of the genus Corvus. The killer's name is Arthur Corvus.
- Off on a Technicality: The man who killed Professor Corvus' family was let go due to one of these, triggering his Start of Darkness.
- Red Herring: At first Lawson thinks his publisher is in cahoots with Thurman Parks III to get revenge on Lawson as he seems them together. Initially he thinks the man who's revealed to be the killer is working with Parks as well. However, it turns out that Parks isn't plotting against Lawson at all.
- Secret Test of Character: Lawson is unaware that the book Christopher Marlowe leaves in his hands was one. Because he'd sought to withdraw from the case he was defending then destroyed his career denouncing his own client in court, this gave the killer targeting him pause, and he tests Lawson to see what he'll do. When he finds that Lawson passes the book off as his own, publishing it and becoming rich doing so, the killer judges that he's failed and frames Lawson for the previous murders that he'd committed.
- Serial Killer: Professor Arthur Corvus, whose killings Lawson is suspected of committing due to a Frame-Up. He's killed a string of criminal defense attorneys before, beginning with the one who'd got off his family's killer.
- Sex Starts, Story Stops: Lawson abruptly has sex with his publisher rather explicitly, without buildup.
- Start of Darkness: Corvus' had occurred when the hit and run driver who killed his family got Off on a Technicality. He saw that the man himself was remorseful, but his lawyer simply delighted in winning (and in his pay of course). So he became Corvus' first victim, and other amoral attorneys followed.
- Wall Bang Her: This is how Lawson has sex with his publisher, up against a wall in her bedroom.
- Wrongful Accusation Insurance: Russell is cleared of all murder charges at the end of the movie, including the charge of murdering Corvus, a murder he clearly did commit. It's not said how his attorney managed this.