Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2783
Part 1: Chapters 1-5
The Last Juror opens with the news that through "patient mismanagement and loving neglect," the small independent newspaper The Ford County Times is going bankrupt. It is 1970, and Joyner William "Willie" Traynor, a twenty-three-year-old college dropout who works as a reporter for the paper, finds himself facing unemployment. Instead, thanks to luck and a wealthy grandmother, Willie buys the paper, intent on making his living. Just months after Willie takes over as editor, Rhoda Kassellaw, a young widow with two small children, is brutally raped and murdered. After seeing the intruder, the children run to their neighbor, Aaron Deece, who finds the dying Rhoda. With her dying breath, she names her killer—Danny Padgitt. In the meantime, Padgitt, who is half-drunk at the time of the murder, flees in his truck. He tries to make it home to Padgitt Island, the family's private kingdom in Ford County, where wanted criminals can hide and never be found. Driving recklessly, he has a bad accident on the way and is immediately arrested by the police. The incident fuels much gossip. Willie and his photographer Wiley get as much information as possible, which Willie prints, to his advantage. At Danny's bail hearing, his lawyer Lucien Wilbanks immediately threatens Willy with a libel suit and later calls the judge's attention to the paper, trying for a gag order on all proceedings. The judge praises the story in front of the packed courtroom and denies Danny bail.
Willie, who is still rather naive about the newspaper business, learns from his senior reporter Baggy Suggs that he will not be sued for libel, since he did not break the law. He also learns Danny is being held in the only decent cell in the decrepit county jail, known as "the suite." Oddly, he is being given special treatment by the corrupt county sheriff, Mackey Don Coley. After Willie does some investigating, he writes another sensational story about Danny's unusual privileges. Because the Padgitts and Lucien are unpopular, the people of the county love the story. However, soon after the article runs, a bomb is found in the Times offices. Suspicion falls on the Padgitts, who are known to be experienced arsonists, but the sheriff stalls the investigation. When Wiley is viciously beaten in his own driveway, local lawyer Harry Rex Vonner gives Willie a gun and teaches him to shoot. For a while, Willie carries the gun, but he soon tires of it and leaves the weapon in his car. Lucien holds a hearing for a change of venue for the trial, citing the local newspaper's biased coverage, and Willie is called to testify. Lucien makes him look ignorant on the stand, and Willie leaves, enraged. Around this time, Willie also meets Miss Calia Ruffin, or Miss Callie as he calls her. She invites him for the first of what will be many lunches.
Lucien withdraws his motion for a change of venue. The District Attorney Ernie Gaddis petitions for a larger and secret jury pool, and the judge grants it. Both the District Attorney and Judge Loomis fear jury tampering by the Padgitts, either through bribes or threats. In the meantime, Willie visits more with Miss Callie, who questions whether he is a Christian and worries about his soul. He learns more about her children, and publishes a two-part front-page series about the Ruffins. Lucien sends him a note praising the story. When the jury summonses go out, Miss Callie learns she is called. She dislikes judging another person, but knows it is her duty. She is the last juror picked, and is proud to be a black juror on such an impor00tant case. The trial begins, and one of the witnesses for the prosecution is Ginger McClure, Rhoda's sister. After the opening day's proceedings, the judge sequesters the jury so they will not be influenced by the newspaper, or easily threatened or bribed by the Padgitts. Later that night, Ginger asks Willie for a drink and they end up spending the evening together. She sleeps at his apartment, but nothing sexual happens between them.
The trial continues, with the State calling all of its witnesses. Its last witness is Mr. Aaron Deece, the man who heard Rhoda's last words. Lucien begins the defense by painting Danny as an innocent boy who has been framed. He calls as a witness Lydia Vince, a married woman who swears on the stand that at the time of the murder, she and Danny were having sex. On cross-examination, Gaddis reveals information that makes it appear the woman is being paid off by someone, possibly the Padgitts. When the session ends for the day, Willie and Ginger are depressed by the outcome. After getting drunk, they have sex. By the next day, Gaddis has found Malcolm Vince, Lydia's estranged husband. He testifies that Lydia must be lying, since their marriage broke up over her lesbian tendencies. Lucien, knowing Lydia is a bought witness, tries to fix the damage but gives up. Danny Padgitt insists on testifying on his own behalf, against Lucien's advice. As Lucien has predicted, Danny is terrible on the stand, insisting that all the physical evidence against him is part of a conspiracy. When he realizes no one believes him, he loses his temper and threatens the jury that he will "get" every one of them. After closing arguments, the jury deliberates for a short time before arriving at a guilty verdict. They must now vote on the penalty—death or life in prison. No one is allowed to tell the jury that, at that time in Mississippi, "life" could mean less than twenty years. While waiting for the jury to decide, Willie and Ginger spend their last night together. He would like to pursue a deeper relationship, but she wants no memories of Clanton. The next day, because the jury cannot reach a decision, the judge is forced to give a life sentence. Miss Callie faints while leaving the courtroom and is rushed to the hospital, where doctors find her blood pressure is too high. She refuses to discuss the verdict. The county is shocked and dismayed by Danny's sentence. Many people blame Miss Callie and say that because she is black, she is the one who would not allow the death penalty. Then Willie reveals to the reader that within twenty-four hours, Clanton has forgotten the trial, as there is something more important to focus on.
Part 2: Chapters 21-25
The people of Clanton discover they will have to desegregate their schools in just six weeks, before they open for the new school year. Many of the white citizens panic, while most of the black citizens appear victorious. Willie is pleased because the announcement is good for his paper's circulation. The high school football season also helps with both readership and the integration problem as a young black boy leads the football team to glory. Mr. Mitlo, the local men's clothing store owner, decides to change Willie's dress style, turning him from a student into a sharply dressed professional. Malcolm Vince is murdered by an unknown sniper but the murderer is never caught. Willie learns that 16-year-old Sam Ruffin, Miss Callie's youngest child, has had an affair with a white woman named Iris Durant, and must leave town for fear of losing his life. Willie meets Sam and agrees to act as a go-between for Sam and his parents. Willie also offers to send a message to Trooper Durant, Iris's ex-husband, asking if he will allow Sam to see his parents in Clanton as long as he does not leave the black section of town. Durant does not agree, and repeats his threat to kill Sam if he comes home to Clanton. The rest of the Ruffin children and their families come home to Clanton for Christmas. Willie meets them all and is treated as a part of the family. He realizes how emotionally poor his own family and upbringing was. His mother died when he was thirteen, his father is slightly crazy, and he has no siblings. He spends Christmas Eve with his father, eating at a local Chinese restaurant, and Christmas Day with his grandmother BeeBee and some of her friends. He desperately misses the Ruffins.
On a day in late January, a sniper starts shooting up downtown Clanton. The gunman is Hank Hooten, who was an attorney on Rhoda's case as well as her lover. Hank is diagnosed as schizophrenic and sent to a mental hospital. One year after Willie buys the paper, he has enough money to pay back his grandmother but she tells him to keep his money. He decides to buy a new printing press and he updates the paper. That July campaigning starts for local elections, and in August the town elects a new sheriff. In November, the first white soldier from Ford County dies in Vietnam, and Willie stirs up a controversy with staunchly anti-war editorials. His landlord, Max Hocutt, dies, and Willie buys the man's decrepit mansion and old car from the remaining Hocutt sisters, who plan to enter a retirement home. Sam Ruffin receives his draft notice; his family convinces him to dodge the draft and flee to Canada. Willie hires a contractor to renovate the house, which turns out to be uninhabitable. The State Supreme Court affirms the conviction of Danny Padgitt.
Part 3: Chapters 32-35
This section starts five years after the end of part two. It is now 1977, and Willie's mansion is finally ready to be lived in. He has an open-house party to celebrate, with over 300 guests. He also learns that Danny Padgitt is no longer at the maximum-security prison. He has been moved to a nicer prison camp and regularly leaves the camp to go into town for lunch at the diner. No one suspects he is a prisoner. Willie breaks the story of Danny's transfer in the paper, and it is picked up by the large Mississippi and Tennessee daily papers. Within two weeks, Danny is back in the penitentiary. Willie receives threatening phone calls and notifies the FBI. He leaks his FBI communication to the daily papers so the investigation is made public. Seven years after the trial, he starts to wear a gun again, afraid of retaliation from the Padgitts. As part of his editorship, Willie has a policy of visiting services at every church in the county, and during one of these visits he sees Hank Hooten. Surprised, he tries to investigate Hooten's movements and his release from the mental hospital, but he is unsuccessful. In September 1978, Willie hears about a secret parole hearing for Danny Padgitt from a fellow newspaperman, and he attends. Contrary to state law, no one in Ford County has been notified, and the press is barred, but Willie gets around this obstacle by serving as a witness for the "other side" that is trying to keep Danny in prison. Though he is the only one there speaking against Danny's release, parole is denied by the slimmest margin. The news of Danny's near release makes Miss Callie ill, because she fears him. Still the go-between for the family, Willie gives her letters from Sam. Sam has prospered in Canada, earning a degree in economics and saving money for law school. By this time, President Jimmy Carter has pardoned those who evaded the draft, and Sam considers returning to the United States. Willie gets an offer to buy the newspaper, but he is not interested in selling.
Willie learns Danny Padgitt is to have another parole hearing. He tells Sheriff McNatt, who attends the hearing and tries to keep Danny in prison, but Danny is released. Clanton is "quietly disappointed." Evidence suggests that the Padgitts bribed the local state senator to help secure his parole, but Willie can-not prove it. Sam returns from Canada and makes a brief, secret visit to his family. He plans to go to law school. Miss Callie worries about Danny being out of jail. The people interested in buying Willie's paper make another offer. Lenny Fargarson, one of the jurors in Danny's trial, is murdered by an unknown killer, a sniper who shoots from a distance. Everyone remembers Danny's threat. The sheriff asks Willie for a list of jurors, and they discover that one has died of natural causes, but the remaining ten are still alive. All are warned, and Willie warns Miss Callie himself. She is distraught by the news and it affects her blood pressure, which has worsened in the years since the trial. The sheriff then asks Willie to speak to Lucien, Danny's attorney, about acting as a go-between for the sheriff and the Padgitts. Willie brings his lawyer friend Harry Rex for support, but Lucien is not interested in helping. Willie spends more time with Miss Callie to protect her. Eleven days after Lenny is killed, a second juror, Mo Teale, is shot by a sniper. The sheriff decides his priority is to protect the remaining jurors. They learn that one moved to Florida after the trial, so eight people remain. The sheriff uses his men, but townspeople also help protect their neighbors. Many of the jurors are hidden by their friends, who patrol the yards of the juror's homes with rifles in hand. Willie thinks Miss Callie's home has become an armed fortress. Willie tells his friend Harry Rex that he is thinking of selling the paper, and asks his advice. Harry asks if Willie would move, and Willie says no, because Clanton is home. A few days later, Miss Callie breaks her promise to keep the details of the jury's deliberations a secret. She shows Willie the list of who voted for and against the death penalty. Three jurors opposed: Fargarson, Teale, and Maxine Root. Willie, Sam, and Miss Callie contemplate the odds of coincidence, and wonder whether to warn Maxine Root. Before they can decide what to do, another juror, Earl Youry, offers the same information. The sheriff warns Maxine. Lucien asks Harry Rex to tell the sheriff that Danny Padgitt denies all involvement in the murders, and has witnesses to give him alibis for both murders. The sheriff does not believe it, and works on getting the warrants needed to arrest Danny.
Willie says he is tired of the paper and tired of Clanton, and he suspects that Clanton is tired of him. He enters into serious negotiations about selling. As a treat, Esau, Willie, and Sam bring Miss Callie to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the grave of Mrs. DeJarnette. In honor of her Italian second mother, Willie treats her to a large Italian dinner. None of them wants to leave Memphis, because it is good to get away from the tensions in Clanton. On June 25, 1979, Willie signs the papers selling the Times for one and a half million dollars. He tries to keep it quiet, but ends up telling his employees. He wants to leave town, but feels that he cannot go until the killings stop. As July 4, 1979 approaches, Willie admits his enthusiasm for the annual picnic and fireworks is low. However, the Ruffin family decides to have a family reunion, and Willie offers his five bedrooms to any Ruffin family member who wants to stay. There are now twenty-one grandchildren and a total of thirty-five Ruffins, not counting Miss Callie, Esau, and Sam. Of that number, twenty-three stay at Willie's Hocutt House. Willie observes that in nine years, he and Miss Callie have missed only seven Thursday lunches. He wants them to continue after he stops editing the paper, though he cannot find a good time to tell Miss Callie of the sale. Maxine Root receives a suspicious package. Travis, a part-time deputy, puts the package on the back porch and shoots it to see if it is a bomb. The resulting explosion badly injures Travis, Maxine, and two spectators. The sheriff immediately seeks a warrant for Danny Padgitt's arrest. Danny, with Lucien, surrenders peace-fully. The people of Clanton are relieved. The next day, much of Clanton turns out for the bail hearing, including Willie and Miss Callie and her family; the Padgitt family is noticeably absent. When Danny is put on the stand, he is shot and killed by someone in the courthouse. After an hour, they find the sniper—Hank Hooten. The shocking events cause Miss Callie to suffer a stroke, and she is taken to the hospital. Willie, by now considered a member of the Ruffin family, shares Miss Callie's last moments with them. Afterward, he goes to his office and writes his last piece for The Ford County Times: Miss Callie's obituary.