In Washington, D.C. on Christmas Day, a Supreme Court Justice gives Elizabeth Quinn, a file clerk with the Justice Department, messages to deliver to some unnamed people and then kills himself. Shortly after his death, Quinn's own corpse is found in the Potomac River. A homeless man (Neeson) living nearby is arrested for her murder after police follow the trail back to his abode. He is found to have slept in her car the night she was murdered, with her wallet on his person. The overworked public defender Kathleen Riley (Cher) is assigned to represent him on the murder charge.
The homeless man, it turns out, is named Carl Anderson, who is deaf and mute along with being a Vietnam veteran. Carl writes that he was simply sleeping in her car that night to get warm, and denies killing Quinn. Kathleen finds it hard to communicate with Carl, not only because of his disability but due to a hard personality built up over years of life on the streets. Over time, however, he begins to open up and tries to help her mount a defense.
As the case opens, agribusiness lobbyist Eddie Sanger (Quaid) is chosen for the jury despite his best efforts. He notices discrepancies in the prosecution's case, and illegally contacts Riley with his observations. Despite her reservations, she begins to investigate the case along with him, which soon proves to be much more than an ordinary murder...
This film provides examples of:
- Asshole Victim: Michael, a violent, knife-wielding homeless racist. He certainly appears to be a good suspect in Elizabeth Quinn's murder, but is himself killed by the actual murderer to stop him revealing anything about it.
- Deus ex Machina: Roger Ebert felt the film's ending was this, feeling it hadn't been well established.
- Downer Beginning: A Supreme Court Justice commits suicide, Elizabeth Quinn is found dead in a river and Kathleen gets robbed of her Christmas gifts and mother's necklace on her way to work.
- Foreshadowing: There are subtle indications Judge Matthew Helms is the murderer. He maneuvered with a colleague to get Carl's case, so it could be steered toward a guilty verdict. Then, after Kathleen finds another possible homeless suspect in the murder, he lets a detective talk about where homeless people live in Washington D.C. so he can find and kill him.
- Hollywood Law: Unfortunately, the plot hinges on this (despite being accurate otherwise). The 1968 case which Quinn found ended in a dismissal by the judge in return for an appointment to the court of appeals. However, an order of dismissal probably would just go in the judge's and lawyers' case files, rather than be a part of the trial transcript (especially if it was fixed) so Quinn shouldn't have been able to discover it.
- Insistent Terminology: Eddie is a "Congressional consultant", not a lobbyist, and compares this mockingly with calling a lawyer a mouthpiece.
- Jury and Witness Tampering: Judge Helms correctly suspects Kathleen and Eddie are illegally in contact, but can't prove it. They avoid being caught by him in the law library, but he sequesters the jury to prevent anything further, which forces Eddie to sneak out of the hotel. If this came out, they could be charged, and Kathleen might be disbarred or sanctioned. However, as Judge Helms is the murderer, no one's likely to really care that much as they're small fry in comparison.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Michael, who calls Kathleen's black process server a "black devil" while mentioning him to her after he assaulted him with a knife. Also Matthew Helms to a lesser degree, as he appears to be a conservative Republican in favor of capital punishment (ironically, given that he's a murderer himself).
- Revealing Cover Up: Judge Matthew Helms tries to cover up his past bribe-taking to throw a case by killing the person who found it out, but this leads to the revelation later when her murder is investigated.
- Starts with a Suicide: The Supreme Court Justice kills himself with a shotgun at the end of the very first scene, setting the plot in motion after he gave a file clerk mysterious messages to deliver.
- Twist Ending: It turns out that Matthew Helms, the judge on the case, is the murderer, despite Kathleen and Eddie's initial suspicions that Deputy Attorney General Paul Gray was behind the murder.