David Gale is a professor on death row in Texas. With only a few days until his execution, his lawyer negotiates a half-million dollar fee to tell his story to Bitsey Bloom, a journalist from a major news magazine. She has a reputation of keeping secrets and protecting her sources. He tells her how he ended up on death row, revealed through a series of lengthy flashbacks.
Gale is head of the philosophy department at the University of Austin and an active member of DeathWatch, an advocacy group campaigning against capital punishment. At a graduation party, he encounters Berlin, an attractive graduate student who had been expelled from the school. When Gale gets drunk at the party, she seduces him and they have sex. She then falsely accuses Gale of rape. The next day, he loses a televised debate with the Governor of Texas when he is unable to prove a demonstrably innocent man was executed during the governor’s term. After losing the debate, Gale is arrested and charged with rape. While the rape charge against Gale is later dropped, the damage had already been done, and his family, marriage, university career and reputation are all destroyed.
Constance Harraway, a fellow DeathWatch activist, is a close friend of Gale who consoles him after his life falls apart, and the pair have sex. However, the next day, Harraway is discovered raped and murdered, suffocated by a plastic bag taped over her head. An autopsy reveals that she had been forced to swallow the key to the handcuffs used to restrain her, a psychological torture technique used by the Securitate under the communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which Gale and Harraway had both protested against. The physical evidence at the crime scene points to Gale, who is convicted of rape and murder and is sentenced to death.
In the present, Bloom investigates the case in between her visits with Gale. She comes to believe that the apparent evidence against Gale does not add up. She is tailed several times in her car by Dusty Wright, an alleged one-time lover and colleague of Harraway, who she suspects was the real killer. Wright slips evidence to Bloom that suggests Gale has been framed, implying that the actual murderer videotaped the crime. Bloom pursues this lead until she finds a tape revealing that Harraway, who was suffering from terminal leukemia, had committed an elaborate suicide made to look like murder. Wright is seen on the videotape, acting as her accomplice, implying that they framed Gale as part of a plan to discredit the death penalty by conspiring to execute an innocent person, and subsequently releasing evidence of the actual circumstances.
Once Bloom and her aide find this evidence, only hours remain until Gale’s scheduled execution. She tries to give the tape to the authorities in time to stop the execution. She arrives at the Huntsville Unit just as the warden announces that the execution has been carried out. The tape is subsequently released, causing a media and political uproar over the execution of an innocent man. Later, Wright receives the fee that Bloom’s magazine agreed to pay for the interview, and delivers it to Gale’s ex-wife in Spain, along with a postcard from Berlin in San Francisco apologizing, all but confessing that the rape accusation that derailed Gale’s life and career was false. His ex-wife looks distraught, knowing Gale told the truth and that she effectively stole their child away from him.
Much later still, a videotape labeled “Off the Record” is delivered to Bloom. This tape picks up at the point where Wright confirmed that Harraway was dead. It continues, showing him stepping aside to allow Gale, also present and party to the suicide, to caress the body of his lover, deliberately leaving his fingerprints on the plastic bag in the process. He then stands up and ends the recording, leaving Bloom stunned with the truth that the couple deliberately sacrificed themselves to discredit capital punishment.