Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
Movies like to blend fantasy with fiction. “Based on a true story” or “based on real events” are phrases used to give a film legitimacy or authenticity. The trouble is figuring out exactly where the facts end and the fiction starts. For example, Young Mr. Lincoln features a real person and contains kernels of truth (Lincoln’s stepmother encouraged him to read, he was a lawyer in Springfield, he was known for quirky humor, etc.) but embellishes other events or makes them up entirely. Judgment at Nuremberg is another example: there were, in fact, war crimes trials held after World War II in that German city, but the movie itself is pure fiction. This month’s movie, Murder in the First, offers another example of this kind of melding. It tells us it’s “inspired by a true story,” but, it turns out, not so much.
Starring Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater, the movie was released in 1995. It tells the story of Henri Young (Bacon), a 17-year-old orphan who steals five dollars from a store during the Depression to feed himself and his sister. Unfortunately for Young, the store also had a post office in it and he’s prosecuted in the federal system, ending up at Leavenworth. He’s later transferred to Alcatraz—“The Rock”—where he and two other prisoners try to escape. The escape fails due to another prisoner’s betrayal. Alcatraz’s sadistic warden (Gary Oldman) tortures Young and throws him into solitary for three years. Not surprisingly, Young loses his marbles. After being put back into the general prison population, he attacks his betrayer with a spoon in the cafeteria (where else?) and kills him. Put on trial for murder, Young’s lawyer, an inexperienced P.D. played by Slater, decides to defend Young by putting the prison system, Alcatraz, and the warden on trial, asking the jury to find that Young’s treatment turned him into a killer. The trial turns into a political circus, replete with shouting, surprise testimony, an overbearing judge who tweaks the evidence to help the prosecution, etc. Eventually, the jury finds Young guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but also returns a “verdict” against the warden and suggests an investigation of Alcatraz. Before Young can be transferred to another prison, he’s (mysteriously) found dead in his cell. A voiceover at the end tells us the warden was convicted of prisoner abuse and that Young’s conviction caused Alcatraz’s underground cells to be closed.
But how much of this is true? Well some of it, but not much. There really was a Henri Young, but he wasn’t the innocent played by Bacon. He was, in fact an experienced criminal, who’d been convicted of bank robbery (not a five-dollar theft) and had committed a murder in 1933. He’d previously spent time in state prisons for burglary and robbery and also in other federal facilities before being transferred to Alcatraz because he was an incorrigible prisoner. Young did kill another prisoner at Alcatraz, but in their book Reel Justice, Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow suggest it was “likely the result of a lover’s quarrel.” The murder took place in the prison laundry and Young used a knife. How long Young was actually in solitary can’t be confirmed, since no records currently exist, although contemporary newspaper accounts do reference the three-year claim. Young never served time in Alcatraz’s underground cells, since they were closed before he got there. It’s unlikely Young really was represented by a “Public Defender,” since that system didn’t become common at the state level until after Gideon v. Wainwright. Perhaps most interestingly, Young didn’t die in Alcatraz. He was transferred to the federal medical facility in Springfield, Missouri in 1954 and, after finishing his federal sentence, was then transferred to a state penitentiary in Washington to serve a life sentence for that 1933 murder. He was released on parole in 1972—and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. If he’s still with us, he’d be ninety-six years old.
As you can see, this movie’s claim to be “inspired by a true story” is a serious stretch. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to watch and certainly brings to mind the current concerns about the effects of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners, an issue of particular significance in my home state of Colorado after the murder of Department of Corrections head Tom Clements by a paroled prisoner who spent substantial time in solitary. (Clements’ successor, Rick Raemisch, had himself placed in “ad seg” for twenty hours. If you haven’t read his story, you absolutely should. It can be found in The New York Times for February 20, 2014.)
As trial lawyers, we like believe that trials are the best way to bring the truth out of conflicting stories. Helping fact finders discern the truth is perhaps our most important goal as advocates. Every one of us has seen examples of truth that’s stranger than fiction. But sometimes the real problem is telling the difference between the two—and Murder in the First is a perfect example.