San Francisco History

Henri YoungAlcatraz Killing

Young On Trial In Alcatraz Killing

Psychological Defense Revealed; Young Lawyers Quiz Jurymen

by Alvin D. Hyman

Sleepwalking and dual personality, irresistible impulse and dissociation of ideas, strange psycho-physiological states in which the body acts while the mind sleeps—all these were briefly described in the court of Federal Judge Michael J. Roche yesterday as Henri Young went to trial for murder—for murder on Alcatraz.

Accused of secretly fashioning a deadly stiletto like knife while at work in a prison shop, and of expertly using it against Rufus McCain, fellow convict, Young will produce a defense which is strictly psychological, it became at once apparent.

Sol A. Abrams and James MacInnis, youthful attorneys appointed by the court after the defendant asked for counsel “as young as possible,” divulged their plans at once as they began questioning prospective jurors.


The very fact that they were permitted to ask any questions at all caused Federal court attaches to gasp; since 1926 it has been a strictly observed rule—a rule laid down by Chief Justice Hughes—that in Federal district courts the judge and not the attorneys will examine jurors; counsel may submit lists of question which the court may ask—but that is all.

Counsel for Henri Young, however questioned jurors at great length, by permission of the court and consent of Frank Hennessy, United States Attorney—at such length that the entire first day was occupied in obtaining a jury of six men and six women. Ordinarily, Federal court juries are chosen in an hour or two.


The questions which the young lawyers alternated in asking showed unmistakably what their defense will be. They wanted to know whether this juror had ever been knocked unconscious by a blow; if that one had ever been afflicted with somnambulism; if the other could conceive of a physical and mental state in which a man—Henri Young, for instance—might kill another—Rufus McCain, for instance—and do so while unconscious—-”psychologically unconscious.”

That phrase, “psychologically unconscious,” was heard over and over, coupled sometimes with another phrase, “legally irresponsible.”


Over and over, too, they asked whether jurors saw anything “fantastic” or “ridiculous” or “amusing” in a defense based on the concept of psychological unconsciousness, and whether they would give due consideration to expert testimony on such a concept.

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 form 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.”

To that end, they indicated, they will summon half a dozen or more Alcatraz convicts as witnesses, among them several who used to be considered big shots.


In developing that theme, defense counsel parted the veil which the Government throws over its penitentiary on the Rock. They disclosed, for the first time, that Young had vainly tried to kill McCain once before he succeeded.

On August 29, 1939—some three months before he “got” McCain by sneaking up on him in the tailor shop—Young lunged at his former pal and long time enemy with a metal weapon through the bars of a door in an isolation cell.

For that—Young was placed in solitary confinement on restricted rations, the attorneys revealed.

In contrast to the long and careful questioning by jurors by the defense, Hennessy, for the prosecution, contented himself with finding out, chiefly, that occupants of the box have no conscientious scruples against the death penalty.

Though the 29 year old defendant may have been, as his counsel will try to show, “psychologically unconscious” at the time of the killing, he was very much alert and observant yesterday.

Neatly dressed and groomed almost to the point where he might be called dapper. Young kept careful tabs on the proceedings—so careful that his counsel sometimes consulted long with him, and seemingly heeded his advice when it came to exercising peremptory challenges.

The slight, blonde, square-jawed and very youthful looking defendant seemed unworried by the fact that those proceedings may put him in the lethal gas chamber at San Quentin.


The jury, which will start listening to testimony when the trail reconvenes this morning, consists of the following:

Moses W. Altmayer, jeweler of 1991 California Street; Paul Verdier, merchant and civic leader; Mrs. Margaret Nicholson, wife of Don Nicholson, publicist, 2041 Vallejo Street; Mrs. Grace Cody, wife of a physician, 181 Marina Boulevard; Mrs. Rene H. Thompson, wife of a banker, 24 San Benito Way; John M. Glennan, retired jeweler, 1108 Taylor Street.

Mrs. Constance Goss, wife of a Piedmont insurance man; Frank H. Atwater, publishers’ representative, 556 California Street; Edward W. Long, steelman, 1490 Jefferson Street; Mrs. Ruth Packsher, 519 Twenty-sixth Avenue; William H. Caruthers, manager of a disinfectant concern, 510 Seventh Street, and, Mrs. Vera Meierdiercks, wife of a railroad man, 240 San Benito Way.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 16 April 1941. 20. (Picture of Henri Young from article not included here.)

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