‘Presumed Innocent’ Movie Recap & Ending Explained: Did Rusty Kill Carolyn?

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Director Alan J. Pakula has a knack for adapting crime thriller novels to films, and I guess he does a pretty decent job of doing so. Klute and Pelican Brief were some of his films that I personally enjoyed watching, but his 1990 release, Presumed Innocent, takes the cake for me. It is a compelling courtroom drama that has the cynical quality of being a noir thriller. Now that Apple TV+ has announced a series based on the same novel written by Scott Turow, I thought it would be best to revisit the classic and go through the narrative in a detailed manner. So let’s find out what happened in the film so that you know what to expect from the Jake Gyllenhaal starrer series of the same name.

Spoiler Alert


What happened between Carolyn and Rusty?

Rusty was the second in command to Raymond Horgan, and the latter had a lot of faith in his abilities. The election days were near, and Raymond was fighting for reelection against the formidable Della Guardia. Raymond didn’t want any mishap to happen that could potentially affect his election campaign, and that’s when the case of Carolyn Polhemus made headlines in every news channel and tabloid. Carolyn was Rusty’s colleague, and that’s why it was even more important for Raymond to find the perpetrator and put them behind bars. At first, it was suspected that it was a sexual offence where the perpetrator made a forced entry into the apartment, sexually abused Carolyn, and then killed her in cold blood. However, as soon as the autopsy report and the evidence were analyzed, it became clear that the case was a bit more complicated than what the lawyers had speculated. Firstly, there was no sign of forced entry, which made it very clear that Carolyn knew the person who came into her house that day, and secondly, Dr. Kumagai, after the autopsy, came to the conclusion that Carolyn was killed first and then her hands and legs were tied with rope. The matter was handed over to Rusty, and Raymond was told to deliver a quick result as he couldn’t afford to lose the election against his arch-nemesis. Detective Harold Greer was in charge of the investigation, but Rusty asked Raymond to put Detective Dan Lipranzer on the case instead of him.

Everybody knew that Lipranzer was quite close to Rusty, but at that point in time, in Presumed Innocent, Raymond or others didn’t think that Rusty was probably doing that to hide his tracks. Through a flashback sequence, the audience gets to know that Rusty shared a rather intimate relationship with Carolyn and that he was involved in an extramarital affair with her. When Barbara, Rusty’s wife, got to know about his extramarital affair in the past, she was shattered and disheartened. Rusty told her that he was not in love with the woman and that it was just a mistake for which he was extremely apologetic. Barbara didn’t leave her husband, and over a period of time, it felt as if she forgave him. Barbara didn’t want Rusty to handle the case, as she feared that Rusty would relive all those moments that he spent with Carolyn and think about her all over again. Barbara was obviously insecure, but she dealt with the situation in a very mature manner. The image of her husband being in somebody else’s arms hurt her, but still she persevered and gave another chance to Rusty. Rusty felt bad about what his wife had to go through because of him, but he knew that he couldn’t go back in time and change what he did. Rusty didn’t tell Raymond about his affair, even when he knew that handling Carolyn’s case would lead to a conflict of interest.

Rusty and Carolyn didn’t break up on good terms, and just after that, she started seeing Raymond. The chief had just had a divorce, so he got attracted to the woman and had a brief affair with her. Raymond told Rusty all about it, as his conscience was clear, and he had nothing to hide. During his investigation, Rusty got to know that Raymond had handed over a bribery case to Carolyn, and Tommy Molto was also a part of the team. The case was referred to as File B, and information about the same was also not available in any portal. Rusty knew that that case could probably be helpful for his ongoing investigation, but he wasn’t sure enough that he would be able to establish the link. Rusty knew that his motives could be questioned at some point in time as he was involved in a romantic relationship with Carolyn, but he had no clue that Tommy Molto could accuse him of murdering her. Tommy decided to press charges once he recovered a glass from Carolyn’s house that had Rusty’s fingerprints all over it. Also, Rusty had called Carolyn on the day she was murdered, and in addition to that, he didn’t even have a strong alibi. Rusty was shocked, but he knew that he would have to hire a defense lawyer as the case was going to go to trial. 


Did Judge Larren find Rusty guilty of murder? 

Sandy Stern was one of the best in the business and the man felt a bit overwhelmed when his colleague, whom he was often compared to, hired him to represent him. Stern did his research, and he realized that though the physical evidence was against Rusty, there was no strong motive present. Sandy knew that he would have to create that reasonable doubt in front of the jury and show them that there was a lack of motive. The trial began, and Judge Larren Lyttle was presiding over the matter. The first thing that worked in the favor of Rusty was that the glass that had his fingerprints on it was displaced by the authorities. They had the picture of the fingerprint and the testimony of the expert to prove that it belonged to Rusty Sabich, but still, the missing object created a reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury. The prosecution made another careless mistake, which Sandy found out about after he connected with the chemist and went through his reports. Dr. Kumugai had written in his notes that the man who committed the crime was sterile, but in the report of the chemist, it was clearly stated that spermicidal jelly was found in the victim’s body. Now, it came to be known that Carolyn had undergone a process called tube ligation, which made sure that she could never conceive. Sandy questioned Kumagai, saying that if she could not have a baby, then why would she use the spermicidal jelly? Sandy put forth his speculation and suggested that probably the specimens from Carolyn’s body were never sent out to the chemist and instead Kumugai sent some other individual’s samples, by mistake or maybe intentionally. Kumagai got very angry at Sandy for questioning his professional ethics, but the damage was already done. Everybody knew that it was a careless mistake from Kumagai’s end, but that meant that that element of doubt couldn’t be removed. 

Sandy played a masterstroke when he brought the File B bribery case to light. He knew that it was Judge Larren Lyttle who took the bribe, and he would never want his dirty little secret to tarnish his years of service. Sandy knew that if, after all that had transpired, he would move the court to dismiss the case, then the judge would be compelled to do that. Had the glass been found, then the odds would have definitely favored the prosecution, but in its absence, Judge Larren Lyttle dismissed the case and gave a free chit to Rusty Sabich. 


Did Rusty Kill Carolyn? 

In Presumed Innocent‘s ending, Detective Lipranzer told Rusty that the glass, which was the most important piece of evidence, was in his custody. Actually, he didn’t intend to remove the glass, but accidentally, the glass wasn’t part of the list of objects that were sent to the forensics department for examination. Nobody came to know about it since the analysis was made based on the photo of the fingerprints that had already been taken. Lipranzer thought at some point in time, someone would ask him about it, but nobody did. And since he was removed from the case, he didn’t believe that it was his duty to inform the authorities about it. Obviously, his biases toward Rusty also played a key role in his decision. 

While watching Presumed Innocent for the first time, I thought that it was Rusty who killed Carolyn, but the ending came as a surprise to me. Rusty was doing some repair work in his garden when he found a blood-stained hammer in his tool kit. There was a perplexed look on his face, and he just couldn’t connect the dots. Barbara, his wife, came home after giving her interview, and she saw him standing with that tool. That’s when Barbara revealed to him that it was she who had killed Carolyn. Over the years, talking to her husband, Barbara had a fair idea of how a criminal trial was investigated and what things a perpetrator needed to take into consideration to commit the perfect crime. She didn’t want to incriminate her husband, and she was taken aback when he became the prime suspect. She was deeply saddened. She wanted Rusty to know that it was her who committed the crime, and probably that’s why she left a glass of beer at Carolyn’s place, which she had purchased for their house. Barbara just could not deal with the fact that her husband had an extramarital affair with another woman. She saw how much he craved being with that woman, and it made her insanely jealous. She just couldn’t live with the fact that another woman got close to Rusty, and the images of them in a space together tortured her. Rusty knew that his wife wasn’t to blame, and it was he who was responsible for Carolyn’s death. Obviously, the truth never came out in the open, but Rusty’s conscience was burdened with guilt, and probably that was his punishment—that he would have to live with it till the very end. 


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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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