Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov, a wealthy nobleman, is being dressed for the day by his valet. The sights and smells of emerging springtime fill the air and the Prince drinks it in. Suddenly, all the trappings of a courtroom move into place around him and a trial begins. Nekhlyudov is a juror.

The proceedings are perfunctory. Three people have been charged with robbing a man and poisoning him to cover up the theft. Two defendants, Simon Kartinkin and Euphemia Bochkova, are employees of hotel where the crime took place. The third is a beautiful young prostitute, Katerina Maslova (Katusha). When she speaks, Nekhlyudov is shocked to recognize her voice. In a flashback, he remembers meeting her for the first time nearly a decade before, at a May Day festival. She was an orphan living on his aunts' estate; he was on furlough from officer training. They danced together and fell in love.

Abruptly, Nekhlyudov's thoughts return to the trial. The jury is leaning toward a guilty verdict for the first two defendants and an acquittal for Maslova. One holdout believes that Maslova, too, is guilty. To appease him, and to finish the trial quickly, the others agree to a hastily-worded verdict: "guilty, but without intent to rob."

During the jurors' debate, Nekhlyudov's mind wanders to the night of the May Day celebration: he went to Maslova's bedroom, where he ignored her protests and she finally submitted. Afterwards, profoundly ashamed and confused, Nekhlyudov thrust 100 rubles into her hand, leaving her devastated.

His memory fades and he is in the courtroom again. The verdicts are read, and Maslova is sentenced to eight years of penal servitude in Siberia. The court is shocked; the jurors realize the mistake they have made. In their verdict, they had not addressed her guilt on the murder charge. Screaming her innocence, she is led away. Nekhlyudov tells the president of the court that a mistake has been made. The president replies that the sentence may be appealed. Nekhlyudov is left alone in the courtroom, knowing he is to blame for the course Maslova's life has taken, and hating himself.

That evening, Nekhlyudov arrives late for a dinner party given by the Korchagins, whose daughter Missy is generally assumed to be his intended bride. He explains his experience in the court and how the unjust verdict has unsettled him, but his aristocratic hosts do not understand. When Missy is alone with Nekhlyudov, she attempts to seduce him, to cement his commitment to her. Nekhlyudov is repelled. He suddenly comprehends that he can never marry Missy, and that he must set things right for Maslova whatever the cost. He leaves.

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