Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” was recently adapted into an Apple TV+ series starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Over two decades ago, Alan J Pakula adapted the same novel for a legal thriller with Harrison Ford as the lead. Written by Pakula and Frank Pierson, the screenplay followed the life of a prosecutor who gets charged with the murder of his colleague, with whom he had a sexual affair. Unlike the series, the film explores different narrative threads, more from the life of the dead colleague and strikingly less about the prosecutor’s wife and family.

Spoilers Ahead

Presumed Innocent (1990) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:

Harrison Ford starrer “Presumed Innocent” follows Rusty Sabich, a prosecuting attorney who is accused of killing his female colleague, Carolyn Polhemus. In the past, Rusty and Carolyn had a sexual affair. It creates further complications in the case.

What happens in the 1990 movie ‘Presumed Innocent’?

Rozat K ‘Rusty’ Sabich (Harrison Ford) is introduced as a family man with a wife, Barbara (Bonni Bedelia), and a son, Nat (Jesse Bradford). On a day like any other, he heads to his job as a prosecuting attorney. At the office, his assistant hands him over an envelope left under his door. He opens it to find a message from his colleague, Carolyn Polhemus (Grata Scacchi). Moments later, his boss, district attorney Raymond Horgan informs him that Carolyn was raped and murdered the night before in her apartment. No weapon was found near her, nor was there a sign of a break-in.

Raymond is concerned about the upcoming District Attorney elections where Nico Della Guardia is campaigning against him. The acting head of the homicide division, Tommy Molto, has joined Della Guardia’s election campaign. Therefore, Raymond wants someone he can trust in Carolyn’s case so that the death of one of his prosecutors won’t be used against him. That’s why he insists Rusty take charge of the investigation. Rusty goes through the photos of Carolyn’s dead body and asks Detective Dan Lipranzer (John Spencer) to check the records to see if there are any similar cases in the past.

 Rusty’s Infidelity

Rusty finds himself in a conundrum investigating the case of Carolyn’s murder, given he has had a sexual affair with Carolyn. He had confessed about it to his wife, Barbara. Despite his infidelity, Barbara decides to stay with him. Still, he remained obsessed with Carolyn. Eventually, after Carolyn’s death, Rusty starts looking into a bribery file she was working on to see if it has any connection to her murder. He burns the envelope she left for him and tries to leave his relationship with Carolyn out of the investigation.

After her wake, Lipranzer tells Rusty about a semen sample found in her body. It concludes that whoever raped her was likely sterile. Rusty starts looking into possible culprits for Carolyn’s murder. Their medical examiner, Dr Kumagai (Sab Shimono), shares his observations. According to his report, Carolyn was first raped and then tied up. She died from multiple head injuries. Meanwhile, Raymond gets frustrated with how Rusty has been handling the case. During their discussion, Raymond confesses that he was once romantically involved with her.

Rusty & Carolyn’s Affair

In the past, when Carolyn joined their department, Rusty took a liking to her. She decided to take on a case of a boy having gotten severely injured because of his mother. Rusty thought the kid would retract speaking against his mother when he saw her in the courtroom. Still, Carolyn was determined to seek justice. She made the kid feel comfortable to share the truth of what his mother subjected him to. Rusty also passionately fought this case, which brought them closer. It led to them having a passionate sexual affair. Soon after, Carolyn hoped to distance herself from Rusty. But he stayed obsessed with her.

Molto & Della Guardia

Lipranzer informs Rusty about Tommy Molto looking into the case of Carolyn’s murder. Molto gets Lipranzer taken off the case. Soon after, Molto & Della Guardia accuse Rusty of Carolyn’s murder. They find evidence of Rusty’s fingerprints on a glass in Carolyn’s house. His phone record also shows a call to her. So, they claim that he was with her the night she died. Soon after, the police show up at his doorstep with a search warrant. Rusty hires a well-known defense attorney, Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern (Raul Julia), to fight his case. Sandy wants Rusty to not testify and take the Fifth Amendment.

Presumed Innocent (1990) Movie Ending Explained
A still from “Presumed Innocent” (1990)

Although Rusty worries it may damage his reputation, Sandy convinces him to do it. Then, Rusty & Sandy discuss how Della Guardia & Molto will likely approach their case. Later, Raymond falsely claims that Rusty insisted that he handle the case. Meanwhile, Rusty learns about a bribery case Raymond assigned Carolyn to about someone named Leon Wells. Rusty figures Leon paid off PA to have the charges against him get dropped. His probation officer was Carolyn, and the deputy assigned to his case was Tommy Molto. The day after Rusty discovered this bribery case, he got arrested. So, Stern tries to prove that Della Guardia & Molto have framed Rusty.

Stern’s Defence Case

Molto hopes to bring Detective Harold Greer (Tucker Smallwood) to speak about the DNA proof of the glass. But Stern deems it immaterial since they don’t have the said glass in the evidence. Stern questions Raymond for withholding evidence against Rusty despite his years of service. Molto claims that Stern is chasing red herrings. But Stern is confident with his approach. In another trial, Della Guardia grills Lipranzer about his knowledge of Rusty’s relationship with Carolyn. But Judge doesn’t allow Stern to question Lipranzer about the past cases involving Carolyn. So, Stern suggests to Rusty that they should bring Barbara to the stand to testify for him to help make their case. Rusty refuses that.

During a later date, Della Guardia lets the jury members look at the horrifying evidence of Carolyn’s murder, including her bloodied clothes. The prosecutors try to prove Rusty’s guilt by pointing out the blood type. Still, the glass of Rusty’s fingerprints remain absent. Soon after, Rusty & Lipranzer find Leon Wells and question him. He reveals that Carolyn facilitated his acquittal after he paid off Judge Larren Lyttle. Later, during his cross-examination, Dr. Kumagai reads out his autopsy notes to reveal that Carolyn had her tubes tied, which stopped her from having a baby or having used a spermicide. Based on that, Stern notes that the fluid sample was not taken from Carolyn’s body.

Presumed Innocent (1990) Movie Ending Explained:

Does Rusty get imprisoned for Carolyn’s murder?

Stern points out a discrepancy in Carolyn’s autopsy report. Considering the pointlessness of the discussion about the fluid sample and the lack of integral evidence (the glass), the Judge dismisses the charges against Rusty and apologizes for the trouble he had to go through. Soon after, Rusty questions Stern for bringing up the bribery charges against Judge Lyttle in the discussion. Stern reveals that Judge Lyttle also had a brief relationship with Carolyn. Besides that, Stern & Raymond knew that Lyttle was taking bribes.

Because of these issues, the Judge offered his resignation, but Raymond convinced him against it. That’s why the Judge refused to let Stern speak about a case that could implicate him. Stern used his knowledge of Judge Lyttle’s past to his advantage. Later on, Lipranzer meets Rusty to show the missing beer glass with Rusty’s fingerprints that was going to serve as the evidence. Lipranzer reveals that but never returned the glass after Molto took over the charge of the investigation. Upon hearing this, Rusty throws the glass into the river.

Who was behind Carolyn Polhemus’s murder?

After his conversation with Lipranzer at home, Rusty finds a hatchet with blood and hair on it. While he goes to clean it, Barbara confesses to having killed Carolyn because of their affair. She had left enough evidence for the police to convict her. But she didn’t expect Rusty to get arrested. Right after, through a voiceover, Rusty notes that the case of Carolyn’s murder remains unsolved. He claims a practical impossibility to try two people (himself & Barbara) for the same crime.

Rusty notes that he doesn’t want to take the mother away from their son. He accepts his guilt for Carolyn’s murder even though Barbara was the one who committed the crime since his affair led to that unfortunate incident. So, in the end, “Presumed Innocent” doesn’t remain to be just about the investigation of truth. It becomes about ‘how’ the truth is investigated when the defendant is someone like the protagonist, who has a certain reputation to make a case for his innocence.

Read More: Top 10 Harrison Ford Films According to Rotten Tomatoes


Presumed Innocent (1990) Movie Links: IMDb, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
The Cast of Presumed Innocent (1990) Movie: Harrison Ford, Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Winfield, Greta Scacchi
Presumed Innocent (1990) Movie Genre: Mystery & Thriller | Runtime: 2h 7m

Similar Posts