An eager and idealistic young attorney defends an Alcatraz prisoner accused of murdering a fellow inmate. The extenuating circumstances: his client had just spent over three years in solitary confinement.
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Henri Young stole five dollars from a post office and ended up going to prison - to the most famous, or infamous, prison of them all: Alcatraz. He tried to escape, failed, and spent three years and two months in solitary confinement - in a dungeon, with no light, no heat and no toilet. Milton Glenn, the assistant warden, who was given free reign by his duty-shirking superior, was responsible for Young's treatment. Glenn even took a straight razor and hobbled Young for life. After three years and two months, Young was taken out of solitary confinement and put with the rest of the prisoners. Almost immediately, Young took a spoon and stabbed a fellow prisoner in the neck, killing him. Now, Young is on trial for murder, and if he's convicted he'll go to the gas chamber. An eager and idealistic young attorney, James Stamphill, is given this impossible case, and argues before a shocked courtroom that Young had a co-conspirator. The true murderer, he says, was Alcatraz. Written by
In real life, Henri Young's defense was handled by two prominent San Francisco attorneys, Sol A. Abrams and James Martin MacInnes. They offered the temporary insanity defense, saying that Young's brutal treatment on Alcatraz had led him to murder his fellow inmate, Rufus McCain. The jury bought the argument, and returned a verdict of Involuntary Manslaughter, largely because the Alcatraz officials who testified at Young's trial refused to provide any actual details of prisoner treatment at the prison to contradict Young's defense. (Alcatraz officials and guards lived under strict rules not to talk about prison procedures when off the island, for fear these details would make it into the newspapers and be used by criminals in breakout attempts.) See more »
The position of the spoon in Henri's hand changes while he's at the table just before murdering Rufus. See more »
My comments are directed to the claim that this film is based on a true story. The true facts of Henri Young's case are significantly different from the story told in the movie. For instance, Young was not just a petty thief when he came to Alcatraz -- he was already doing time for bank robbery and murder. Nor was he kept in an underground dungeon for three years as punishment for an escape attempt -- his punishment was served in an isolation cell on the prison's first floor with the normal facilities that all prisoners' cells had. His case did not lead directly to the closing of Alcatraz; it continued as a Federal prison for over twenty years after his trial. Of course, there were some abuses at Alcatraz (as at virtually all prisons). Young's trial had some impact on correcting those abuses, but not to the extent suggested by the film.
If you're interested in another view of the Henri Young case, visit the Bureau of Prisons web site (I can't give the URL because that would violate the comments posting guidelines) and search for "Murder in the First".
In any film based on a true event, some license must be granted to the screenwriter. There's no way they can know exactly what was said in every conversation, so representative dialogue has to be written. Some minor characters will probably be composites. These things are understandable. But when the film blatantly distorts the main characters and the main events of the story, I can't help but think that the point the film is making is probably built on shaky ground. "Murder in the First" may be entertaining in some people's opinion, but no one should come away from this film thinking they have seen history portrayed accurately.
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