In the Northeast Texas town of Sloan, a high school cheerleader has gone missing without a trace.
The county prosecuting attorney is under great pressure from the emotional mother and the townspeople to name a suspect.
Based on hearsay, he grills a black athlete who, exhausted by fifteen hours of non-stop questioning, finally signs a “confession”, and is accused of her murder, brought to trial, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. [In Texas, according to lawyer/author John Grisham, in certain circumstances, a body need not be produced to get a murder conviction.]
It is nine years later now, and despite the support of the town's black community and the skill of the town's leading defense attorney, all appeals to the governor and the federal courts have been rejected; the athlete, Donté Drumm will be executed in less than a week.
A paroled forty-four year old felon, Travis Boyette, appears in the Kansas church office of Rev. Keith Schroeder on a Monday morning.
He is quiet, polite, says he has a malignant brain tumor, with only a few months to live at best.
Nine years ago, he kidnapped, raped and murdered a high school girl in Texas.
The police arrested the wrong man, forced a “confession” from him.
Boyette has spent more than half his life in prisons, but says he doesn't want the wrong man to be killed for what he himself did.
Pastor Schroeder has never met Boyette before, but he investigates, with the help of a doctor and a lawyer in his church.
He finds Boyette has just been paroled after serving six years for an unrelated crime; is a registered sex offender in four states, including Texas, was in Sloan at the time the girl disappeared.
And yes, he has a tumor in a recent brain CT scan.
Boyette says he buried the girl's body in the Missouri hills where no one will ever find it; shows Schroeder her high school class ring he has kept as a memento of his crime.
The Texas authorities dismiss Schroeder's phone calls as just another nut case who is intent on preventing an execution for whatever reason.
They get such calls all the time.
They have Drumm's signed confession, and the girl's mother is publicly and loudly intent on avenging her daughter's murder.
The execution will take place in four days.
Pastor Schroeder is by now in contact with Robbie Flak, Drumm's defense lawyer in Sloan.
The only possibility of delaying execution is for Boyette to sign a sworn statement in Sloan.
Schroeder decides his only option is to drive Boyette the 400 miles to Texas – against his lawyer friend's emphatic advice that as soon as they leave Kansas, he will be aiding a felon's violation of parole. There are only three days left.
Meanwhile, tension is building in Sloan between the black community and the white majority.
Two churches, one black one white, have been destroyed by arson.
There is danger of mob violence, and the Texas governor has mobilized the National Guard.
A member of the governor's staff in Austin has deliberately withheld attorney Flak's forwarding of Boyette's signed and notarized confession.
Drumm, who has spent nine years on death row, still insists he is innocent of the murder, rejects the prison chaplain's ministry.
His death will be accomplished by injection, and witnessed by a prescribed number of people related to the case.
The Texas high school football state championship game is scheduled in Sloan for the same weekend.
Sloan elects to receive elect to receive; catches the kickoff, and immediately the team lay their helmets down on the turf in symbolic support of Danté Drumm.
In respect, the opposing team follows suit.
The state championship game is postponed until a future date.
Defense attorney Robbie Flak flies to Huntsville Prison, along with Pastor Schroeder, who he has asked to serve as spiritual adviser.
As such, Schroeder will be one of the witnesses of the execution, along with the families of both the prisoner and the murder victim.
It is now one hour before the scheduled execution.
Back in Sloan, amid the smoke of several burning buildings, the prosecuting attorney has invited some of his associates to a celebration cocktail party.
The case, and the civic restlessness should finally be over, and the National Guard troops sent home.
This novel is a sobering picture of all the things that can go wrong with a murder trial, including multiple human errors and multiple years on death row for an innocent man.