Dolores Claiborne was accused of killing her abusive husband twenty years ago, but the court's findings were inconclusive and she was allowed to walk free. Now she has been accused of killing her employer, Vera Donovan, and this time there is a witness who can place her at the scene of the crime. Things look bad for Dolores when her daughter Selena, a successful Manhattan magazine writer, returns to cover the story.
In 1995, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) works as a domestic servant on Little Tall Island in Maine. Dolores has a struggle with her elderly, paralyzed employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) in her mansion, after which Vera falls down the staircase. Dolores ransacks the kitchen and is then caught by a mailman as she stands over Vera with a rolling pin, apparently intending to kill her. Vera dies and the police begin a murder investigation.
Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Leigh), a successful New York City journalist who battles depression and alcoholism, arrives in town to support her mother, despite her own doubts about Dolores’ innocence. Dolores insists that she did not kill her employer, but finds little sympathy as the entire town believes she murdered her husband, Joe St. George (David Strathairn) almost twenty years earlier. Some of the town’s inhabitants harass her by vandalizing her home, taunting her in the street, and driving by her house screaming at her. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who was the chief detective in her husband’s murder case, is determined to put Dolores away for life.
Selena also believes that Dolores killed her father, and has not spoken to her mother in over a decade. In 1975, Joe was an abusive alcoholic, and one night Dolores had threatened to kill him if he ever harmed her again. Dolores went to work as a housemaid for millionaire Vera Donovan in order to raise enough money to pay for Selena’s education, and had gone to the bank to withdraw her money so she and Selena could flee Joe’s abuse. The plan backfired, however, when the bank notified Dolores that Joe stole the money from Selena’s savings account…