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Front Page - Friday, October 8, 2021

Vinny, vidi, vici: The courtroom movie lawyers love

‘Important legal concepts’ at heart of Pesci, Tomei romp

This is the third installment in a series of articles that examines films in which the U.S. system of justice plays a central role. In this entry, Chattanooga criminal defense attorney Steven Moore discusses the popular 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” which he says offers an accurate portrayal of an American criminal trial. Spoilers for the movie are included.

“A comedy of trial and error!”

“So funny, it’s a crime!”

“There have been many courtroom dramas that glorified the Great American Legal System. This isn’t one of them.”

Of these taglines from posters for the 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” two are spot on. The film is laugh-out-loud funny.

Starring Joe Pesci as Vinny Gambini, “My Cousin Vinny” derives much of its humor from the fish-out-of-water interactions between Pesci’s brash New Yorker and the more reserved people of rural Alabama.

“You stick out like a sore thumb around here,” Gambini chides his girlfriend, played by Marisa Tomei, after they arrive in the small town where the local authorities have wrongly accused his cousin and another young man of murder.

“Oh, yeah, you blend,” she replies, her eyes likely rolling back in their sockets behind her epic pair of sunglasses.

But the last marketing blurb, which suggests “My Cousin Vinny” offers an irreverent portrayal of the U.S. system of justice, is dead wrong.

Although 20th Century Fox probably wanted moviegoers to believe “My Cousin Vinny” playfully thumbs its nose at the American system of justice, Chattanooga attorney Steven Moore says the film’s depiction of courtroom procedure and trial tactics is spot on. Because of this, he believes the movie should be required viewing for law students who want to do criminal work.

“It might be a comedy, but the people who made it weaved important legal concepts into its plot,” Moore argues.

Moore references an early scene in which Gambini’s younger cousin, Bill (played by Ralph Macchio, the Karate Kid himself), speaks with the local sheriff without legal representation to begin building his case for “My Cousin Vinny.”

The scene comes immediately after Bill and his friend are arrested for the murder of a convenience store clerk.

The killing took place mere minutes after the pair left the local Sac-O-Suds, where they had purchased supplies. When eyewitnesses claimed they’d seen two young men run out of the store and peel away in a car matching the description of Bill’s vehicle, they placed targets on the boys’ backs.

As Bill answers the sheriff’s questions, he mistakenly believes the authorities have charged him with shoplifting, as he forgot to pay for a can of tuna at the store. So, when the sheriff reads the actual charge, he repeats it in surprise, asking, “I shot the clerk?”

While this is an unlikely scenario one hopes happens only in the movies, it illustrates an important legal tenet, Moore says.

“When the sheriff reads the transcript of their conversation during this trial, Bill’s rhetorical remark is easily misconstrued,” Moore explains. “This is why someone accused of a crime should never answer questions without a lawyer present.”

Since the cash-strapped “yoots” – Gambini’s way of saying “youths” – can’t pay for representation, Bill summons his cousin, a freshly minted lawyer who failed the bar several times before passing it.

This takes Moore to the scene in which the local trial judge, Chamberlain Haller (whom Fred Gwynne of “The Munsters” played with no-nonsense perfection), hands the green-as-grass Gambini a thick tome titled “Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

Haller then admonishes Gambini to know the contents from cover to cover before stepping a single New York heel into his courtroom.

Gambini appears to disregard the judge’s advice in disastrous (but sidesplitting) early scenes in which Haller holds him in contempt of court. But as Gambini and his girlfriend, Mona Lisa Vito, read the book, he learns how to apply the rules in court, Moore notes.

Still, Gambini’s early blunders convince Bill’s friend they’re headed for the electric chair, so he fires Gambini and hires a public defender. While this servant of the people appears to be a competent attorney when they speak in prison, a bad case of stage fright manifests itself in a debilitating stutter during the trial.

Moore says this scene, despite being played for laughs, shows how having an experienced trial lawyer, or at least an attorney who knows how to prepare a case, makes a world of difference.

“The public defender portrayed in the movie is an extreme example of a bad trial lawyer, but they do exist,” Moore submits.

As the trial proceeds, the prosecution presents three witnesses who claim they saw Bill and his friend flee the store after gunshots rang out. This is where Gambini begins to turn the case around.

Although the budding attorney failed to cross-examine witnesses during the preliminary hearing, he makes up for his lack of experience with aggressive and perceptive questions, Moore says.

When he cross-examines the first witness, for example, he uses his knowledge of the cooking time of grits to force him to admit his perception of the passage of time might be inaccurate. Knowing this, the witness concedes he’s unable to verify the prosecution’s timeline.

The cross-examinations stress the importance of interviewing witnesses and physically visiting a crime scene, Moore proposes.

“Through his interviews, Vinny is able to discredit every eyewitness.”

The trial culminates in an expert witness showdown between Gambini and the prosecutor. First, the state presents an FBI analyst who says the pattern and chemical makeup of the tire marks at the crime scene match the tires on Bill’s 1964 Buick Skylark.

In response, Gambini ropes Vito – who grew up in a family of mechanics and has encyclopedic knowledge of cars – into testifying. While on the stand, she says only a car with an independent rear suspension and positraction could have made the marks – which rules out Bill’s Buick.

She also says the similar-looking 1963 Pontiac Tempest does have these features.

Vito’s testimony is the slam dunk that wins the case – and sealed Moore’s admiration of the film.

“While the state’s expert appeared to place the boys’ car at the scene, Vinny’s use of a more qualified defense expert ultimately causes the prosecution to dismiss its charges,” Moore says.

“The movie offers a great lesson on why a defense lawyer should never concede guilt. A thorough investigation and proper preparation of cross-examination can win a case.”

Moore is not the only jurist to praise the legal veracity of “My Cousin Vinny.” Rather, a chorus of experts preceded him in recommending the film to aspiring criminal attorneys.

In a 2012 article titled, “Every young trial lawyer needs to watch ‘My Cousin Vinny,’” lawyer Max Kennerly writes, “’To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a better movie, ‘12 Angry Men’ is a better drama ... [and] Paul Newman is more compelling in ‘The Verdict.’

“[But] part of why ‘My Cousin Vinny’ has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, ‘A Few Good Men,’ everything that happens in the movie could happen – and often does happen – at trial.”

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner in his 2009 book “Law and Literature” applauds “My Cousin Vinny” for being rich in practice tips, including “how a criminal defense lawyer must stand his ground against a hostile judge, even at the cost of exasperating the judge, because the lawyer’s primary audience is the jury, not the judge.”

Moreover, in a 2012 article titled “My Cousin Vinny: A story about legal education,” John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe writes, “Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t.”

The closing argument in this article goes to the film’s director, Jonathan Lynn, who in a 2012 interview says he believes attorneys find the film appealing because, unlike most legal fiction, there are no bad guys. Rather, the judge, prosecutor and Vinny all seek justice.

“A judge, a prosecutor and a New York attorney seek justice” probably would not have put as many butts in seats as the other taglines did, so no one can fault 20th Century Fox for its marketing strategy.

But instead of being known as the armpit fart of legal movies, as one of the film’s posters suggested, “My Cousin Vinny” earned the respect and admiration of seasoned trial lawyers, some of whom still extol its benefits to the next generation of criminal attorneys.

Then again, there’s Gambini, who at one point scoffs, “I find it hard to believe this kind of information can be ascertained from looking at a picture!”