It opens as the main character, Lawson Russell (Gooding), is taken to jail, acting as Narrator to explain How We Got Here. It began on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, when Lawson is wrestling with a new-found sense of conscience. Unbeknownst to him at the time, a man dressed as Satan picked the lock and slipped into his office, intending to kill him. Lawson cannot reconcile his duty as a defense attorney with the knowledge that his client, Thurman Parks III (Stoltz), the wealthy son of a former mayor of New Orleans, is guilty of murder after he gloats about having told his victim he would get off. The man has a gun on Lawson as he calls the judge and asks to be withdrawn from the case, which upsets His Honor. Seeing him doing this, the intruder stops, listens to his call, and then leaves Lawson alive. The next morning, the judge rejects Lawson's request to be withdrawn, and Lawson turns on his own client, attacking him verbally while on the witness stand, which causes the judge to declare a mistrial and hold him in contempt of court.
Lawson is disbarred, and while his friend Elizabeth Pope (Jean-Baptiste) praises his action on moral grounds, he goes off to Florida, working as a fishing guide. There he meets an old Englishman named Christopher Marlowe who retired there and greatly dislikes lawyers. He shows Lawson a manuscript of his called A Murder of Crows (from a group of crows being called a murder), about a Serial Killer who targets what he sees as morally corrupt defense lawyers. Lawson, who has been struggling to write a novel himself without success, thinks it's brilliant, if somewhat creepy. When Marlowe suddenly dies from a heart attack, he succumbs to temptation and passes off the work as his own. It quickly becomes an overnight success, climbing onto the bestsellers list despite strong criticism from the legal profession. One book signed by Lawson is sent out to a New Orleans detective, Cliffard Dubose (Berenger) who quickly recognizes a shocking fact-the murders in the book actually happened.
Lawson is arrested and interrogated. Detective Dubose was on the first case, and thinks Lawson sent him the book because only he could understand it. After all, he reasons, what's the point of committing the perfect murder if nobody knows about it? The book contained not only depictions of real murders, but specific details which only the killer could know. Lawson denies everything of course and Pope manages to get him released for cooperating. He confesses to her what he did, plagiarizing the book, but Pope is doubtful. Even worse, he destroyed the original manuscript to erase any evidence of plagiarism, while the only person able to confirm he did not write it was the dead man he took it from. More evidence (photos of the murder victims taken by the killer of the victims) is found planted in Lawson's home, causing him to flee the police while, in classic Hitchcockean style, searching for the real killer to clear his name.
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.
- Clear My Name: Lawson embarks on a quest to do this, while simultaneously fleeing the police.
- Coitus Ensues: Lawson abruptly has sex with his publisher in a scene that adds nothing to the plot.
- 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.
- Master of Disguise: The Serial Killer turns out to be one of these. 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 Startof Darkness.
- Serial Killer: Professor Arthur Corvus, whose killings Lawson is suspected of committing due to a Frame-Up.
- Start of Darkness: Corvus' occurs 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.
- 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.