"I think he's innocent until he's proven guilty, and that he'll get a fair trial; nevertheless, he's a murderer." -- interviewee on a newsreel

The trial that brought down Alcatraz

loosely based on a true story

Marc Rocco's most recent foray into film direction, this 1995 film attempts to redefine the courtroom drama, encouraging the viewer to live through the eyes of the characters. In various images, you are a jurist, a courtroom attendant, a prison guard, a prosecuting attorney, or a 1940s movie-goer watching newsreels.

We begin on the island of Alcatraz; it is 1938, and an escape attempt has just been foiled. Two of the four partcipants have been killed, and the other two, Rufus McCain and Henri Young, have been taken into custody. Because McCain told a guard about the attempt (thus dooming it to failure), he was allowed to stay in a normal cell; Young was put into solitary confinement in "the Hole" for "rehabilitation" (1). The Hole was essentially a small, unlit, empty, leaky pit where the prisoner was alternately left on the cement floor or chained to the wall in shackles.

The maximum allowed stay in solitary confinement at that time was 19 days. Henri Young was not released for 3 years (2). During his stay, he was occasionally removed for purposes of torture (beatings, etc.). In one scene, we see Associate Warden Milton Glenn use his shaving straight-razor to slice Young on his heel, reducing Young to hobbling for the rest of his life. His second year in there, Young was given a half-hour in the exercise yard for Christmas.

On June 11, 1941, Alcatraz's Warden, James Humson, made his typical once-monthly visit to the island prison to look over the prisoners' files (3). He finally ordered Henri Young to be removed from solitary. He was cleaned, shaven, and taken to the cafeteria for lunch. He fell victim to sensory overstimulation (understandable after being alone for three years), but among all the noise, someone urged him to kill Rufus McCain for putting him through the torture. (We are never given any indication as to who it is.)

Henri grabs his spoon, walks over, and jams the spoon into McCain's neck, killing him almost instantly (4). Guards restrain him, and take him to San Francisco for prosecution. He is charged with murder in the first degree.

It is here that we come in on the life of James Stamphill, who has recently joined the San Francisco Public Defender's office out of Harvard Law School. He is given the case as his first jury trial, it being expected to be an open-and-shut case. At first, Henri won't even talk to Stamphill, causing the trial to be postponed for a week. As he finally gets Henri to talk, we begin to learn more about Henri's problematic mental state, his past, and his passion for baseball, especially Joe DiMaggio. Henri had been convicted of stealing $5 from a store that doubled as a post office, making the theft a federal crime (5). He'd been transferred to Alcatraz to use some of the space not being used by the big names (Machine-Gun Kelly, Al Capone, Baby-Face Nelson) (5).

We finally achieve the start of the trial, and meet the prosecutor, William McNeil. His opening statement is as follows:

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: the defendant, Henri Young, is accused of murder in the first degree. It is your responsibility, as a juror, to deal with truth; Rufus McCain was murdered by Henri Young. Mr. Stamphill, the public defender, will play upon your sympathies; he will use every trick in the book. Why? To avoid the gas chamber. The United States of America will demand that you return a verdict of guilty so that this - this animal will receive the punishment commanded by the Bible -- an eye for an eye, a life for a life. For if ever there was a man guilty of murder, it is Henri Young, and if ever there was a man who deserved to die for that crime, it is the accused."
Stamphill, in his opening statement, brings forth the charge that Henri Young was led to this crime by his treatment in Alcatraz. This charge leads to an uproar, beginning in the courtroom with Judge Clawson warning Stamphill of treading on dangerous ground, and then in the media and in the Justice Department, as Alcatraz is their "baby", as it were. In fact, not much farther into the movie, J. Edgar Hoover pressures James' brother Byron to get James to drop the case, and as a result, James is fired from the PD office, and one of the defense witnesses is assaulted later in the movie (6). They try even harder when it comes out during the course of the trial that 32 inmates had been removed from Alcatraz to be placed in a mental institution in the time that the prison had been open (6).

Stamphill gets Associate Warden Glenn to take the stand, portraying him as a heartless, cruel overlord. Later, when Stamphill tries to get witnesses to the atrocities at Alcatraz, Glenn's psychological intimidation of the prisoners is apparent when none will come forward (6).

Meanwhile, we see the development of a friendly relationships between Henri Young and James Stamphill. James tries desperately to relate to Henri on a personal basis:

JS: So, how about the Redskins? How do you think they'll do against the Yankees this year?

HY: Jim, the Redskins are a football team. The Yankees are a baseball team. Personally, I think the Redskins 'll kick the shit out of 'em.

Warden Humson takes the stand, and makes himself look incompetent and lacking control over the prison and over Associate Warden Glenn by indicating that he was hardly ever present, as he was governing 3 prisons at the time (7). Afterward, Henri decides to change his plea from not guilty to guilty:

JS: I don't understand. I thought you wanted to fight.

HY: I just.. wanted a friend.
Stamphill tries everything he can to prevent him changing his plea, even going so far as to track down Henri's sister, whom he'd stolen the money to feed, in order to give Henri hope. But Henri refuses, knowing that if he is given a prison sentence, he will have to return to Alcatraz.

In the courtroom, Stamphill manages to maintain the plea and his case by asking Henri to explain why he wants to change his plea. Henri's fear of returning to the torture and horrors he'd experienced is evident, as is the psychological damage that resulted from his stay there:

"I was a weapon, but I ain't no killer."
The jury goes out to reach a verdict. While they wait, Henri and James sit in the holding cell; Henri is trying to teach James how to toss playing cards. This is one of the first times we see the pair interacting solely as fellow human beings.

When the jury returns, they find Henri Young guilty of manslaughter, which carried a short sentence to be served at Alcatraz. They also submit a petition into the trial record:

We would like the following to be read into the record of this proceeding. Though we know it will have no legal or binding effect, we hope it will have a moral effect. We, the members of this jury, recommend and request that immediate investigation by the proper federal authorities of the federal penitentiary known as Alcatraz. We find this institution, its warden and associate warden guilty of crimes against humanity.
Henri Young is returned to Alcatraz, and dies a short time later, having been returned to solitary confinement (8). Before his death, he had scrawled the word "victory" on the floor of his cell.

Solitary confinement was ended as a punishment 7 months after the end of the trial. Alcatraz was finally closed in 1963 as a penal institution.

Selected Cast List:

James Stamphill -- Christian Slater
Henri Young -- Kevin Bacon
Associate Warden Milton Glenn -- Gary Oldman
Mary McCasslin -- Embeth Davidtz
D.A. William McNeil -- William H. Macy
Byron Stamphill -- Brad Dourif
Judge Clawson -- R. Lee Ermey
Rosetta Young -- Mia Kirshner
Warden James Humson -- Stefan Gierasch
Rufus McCain -- David Sterling
Blanche, a hooker -- Kyra Sedgwick

Footnotes are comparisons with the real story. Do keep in mind that the "facts" being compared with this movie come from the Bureau of Prisons.
  1. This is a fabrication. Young was held in the "disciplinary segregation unit", essentially a normal cell but away from the rest of the inmates.
  2. The real Henry (Henri) Young was returned to his general population cell after only a few months.
  3. The real warden, James Johnston, lived on the island, much as the depiction of Associate Warden Glenn. He was there every day.
  4. The actual killing of McCain happened several months after Young's release from segregation.
  5. The real Henry Young had robbed a bank, abused hostages, and committed murder. He was taken to Alcatraz after being held in a federal prison in Washington and several state prisons.
  6. Not true.
  7. The other two prisons mentioned in the movie were state prisons. No one person has ever wardened two types of prison at the same time.
  8. The real Henry Young was at Alcatraz until 1948; he was then transferred to a medical facility for Federal prisoners until 1954, when he began serving his sentence for a State crime. In 1972, he was released and jumped parole.



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