As a 17-year-old orphan, Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), steals $5.00 from a grocery store to feed himself and his little sister, both of whom are destitute. He is apprehended by the store clerk, and his sister is sent to an orphanage. Because that grocery store also housed a U.S. Post Office his crime becomes a federal offense. Young never sees his sister again and is sentenced to Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. After later being transferred to Alcatraz, he participates in an escape attempt with two other prisoners.
The escape plan fails due to the betrayal of a fellow inmate, Rufus McCain (David Michael Sterling). Young is punished by being sent to "the hole" which is in Alcatraz's dungeons. Except for 30 minutes on Christmas Day in 1940, he is left in there for three years. The solitary confinement causes Young to lose his sanity. On release back to the general population, he experiences a psychotic episode in the prison cafeteria and attacks McCain, stabbing him to death with a spoon in full view of the prison staff and the other convicts.
Young is put on trial in San Francisco for first degree murder in what prosecutors and the public-defender's office believe is an open-and-shut case. Public defender James Stamphill (Christian Slater), a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, is given the case. After discovering the facts of Young's case, Stamphill attempts to put Alcatraz on trial by alleging that its harsh conditions drove him insane. The trial becomes highly politicized and contentious. Eventually Young is convicted of involuntary manslaughter, not first degree murder. He is returned to Alcatraz where he subsequently dies. The film concludes with ″The Rock's″ associate warden Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman) being convicted for mistreatment and banned from working in the US penal system.
The film makes numerous changes to historical events. The real Henri Young was not convicted of stealing $5 to save his sister from destitution. He had been a hardened bank robber who had taken a hostage on at least one occasion and had committed a murder in 1933. Young was also no stranger to the penal system. Before being incarcerated at Alcatraz in 1936, he had already served time in two state prisons in Montana and Washington. In 1935 he spent his first year in federal correctional facilities at McNeil Island, Washington before being transferred to Alcatraz.
The film ends with the fictional Henri Young being returned to the dungeons of Alcatraz in the early 1940s where he supposedly dies. In reality the real Young remained on Alcatraz until 1948 before he was moved to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri where he stayed until 1954. While on Alcatraz he remained in the main cell block. Young was not kept in any dungeon as they had been closed almost a decade earlier. In 1954 Young was transferred to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla to begin a life sentence for the murder conviction in 1933.
In 1972 after Young was released from Washington State Penitentiary at age 61, he jumped parole. According to Washington State authorities his whereabouts remain unknown. Young was born in 1911; if still alive as of 2017, he would be about 105–106 years old.
According to The San Francisco Examiner, April 16, 1941, the Defense stated in court that Henri Young was locked up in solitary confinement for over 3 years. This is taken directly from the paper, "Emphasis which they repeatedly laid on the fact that Young was in isolation or solitary confinement for more than three years—and that he drove his knife into McCain’s abdomen just eleven days after release from such confinement, made it clear that the defense hopes to show not only that Young was “punch-drunk” but that the punches were administered by the Alcatraz “system.”
Many of the ideas in the movie were taken directly from newspaper articles of the trials, including the ending scene where the jury only convicts Young of manslaughter, and requests that Alcatraz be investigated.
Murder In The First was released in theatres on January 20, 1995 in 1,237 theatres in the U.S., & made $4,719,188 in its opening weekend. After 4 weeks in theatres, the film made $17,381,942 at the domestic box-office. The film was a commercial & critical failure, & well below its $23 million budget.
Murder in the First received mixed reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively gave the film a score of 50% based on reviews from 36 critics.
Roger Ebert gave the film 2 out of 4 stars, and criticizes Slater as being too young for his role and not confident enough to dial down his performance.