Murder in The First is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I feel that if you give it a chance you will feel that way, too. The only problem is that it is one of those movies you see at the video store, read the title and don't give a second thought. This is an outstanding movie, and deserves more recognition. This is not your basic murder mystery. It is about an orphan boy named Henry Young who in his teens tries to care for his younger sister. He must steal five dollars because they are hungry and he can't find work. He is arrested and taken to Alcatraz Prison outside of San Francisco, with all its hardened criminals in the 1930's. The movie takes you from his attempted escape to the terrible abuse he faces for three years in solitary confinement. Murder in the First is a prison film based on the true story that prompted the Supreme Court to rule that the use of solitary confinement in prisons is inhumane.
James Stamphill is an inexperienced lawyer assigned to the Young case. It is assumed by his superiors that the case is cut and dry and Henry will receive the death penalty. However, when Stamphill interviews Henry, he finds him non-verbal, frightened, catatonic and animal-like. From this point on in the film we begin to learn the entire history of Henry Young and watch a friendship unfold between Henry and Stamphill. Finding the true story about Henry Stamphill starts to construct a case revolving around the fact that it was the system which was ultimately responsible for the murder and that Henry was actually the unwitting weapon. The cruelty and unjust treatment of Henry in solitary confinement transformed a petty thief into a killer by depriving him of basic human needs, such as light, cleanliness, exercise and human interaction. Henry has no memory of killing the other prisoner nor can he remember his own age. The inhumane realities of his brutal treatment in solitary are brought to light and eventually he is found guilty of only involuntary manslaughter.