Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Best Legal Drama No. 3: My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny?  The loudmouth New Yorker trapped in rural Alabama comedy?  The one with "two youts," slow-cooked grits and a red velvet suit?  The one with the Karate Kid as an accused murderer and Herman Munster is the judge? That My Cousin Vinny?


Start with the acting. Joe Pesci's performance as Vinny was perfect. Marisa Tomei won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her performance as Vinny's fiance Mona Lisa Vito. Character actor Lane Smith was letter perfect as the down-home prosecutor Jim Trotter III, and Fred Gwynn gave a wonderful farewell performance as Judge Chamberlain Haller.  Click here for the original movie trailer.

But from a legal perspective, the magic of this movie is that from start to finish it got the law right.

Compare Vinny's cross-examinations with the one in A Few Good Men.  As opposed to standing nose-to-nose and yelling "I want the truth," Vinny did what real lawyers do.   Vinny pokes small holes in the testimony of prosecution witnesses without alienating them or the jury. He smiles when needed, feigns ignorance to advance his questions, and pushes when he has to. He takes the steps that accumulate into reasonable doubt.

Example 1:    The ability of an eye witness to perceive events is always fair game.  Vinny delicately cross examines a nice older woman who has testified that she saw the defendant's car from across the street. Vinny gets her admission that she wasn't wearing her glasses.  This is followed by a demonstration in which the older woman is drawn to admit that her vision isn't what she thought it was, and that maybe she was mistaken. 

Example 2:  The three great weaknesses of eye witness testimony are time, speed and distance.  Vinny cross-examines the good ol' boy who saw the suspect car arrive just before fixing his breakfast, then saw the car leave five minutes later as he was sitting down to eat.  Vinny gets the witness to admit that it would take 20 minutes to cook grits, thereby disrupting the timeline of the prosecution's case.  Click here to watch the cross examination which begins at the 11:00 mark (including the classic "two youts" comment).

Example 3:  The opposing side's expert is always well-prepared and eliciting anything to help your case is difficult.  Vinny makes an objection that the expert was not properly disclosed. When the objection is overruled and the prosecution's witness testifies, Vinny does a credible job of drawing small holes in the assumptions the witness makes, assumptions that add to the piles of possible doubts. He then recalls the prosecution's own expert in the defense case to confirm the testimony of Vinny's own expert - his fiance.

Example 4:  The gem of the movie is the treatment of Ms. Vito, Vinny's  shapely Brooklyn-accented fiance, as an expert witness.  It is flawless both legally and cinematically.

First, Vinny gets permission to question his fiance as a hostile witness. ("That would explain the hostility," Fred Gwynn deadpans.)  Then he presents her as an expert, not qualified by formal education but by her experience. In trials, a plumber or a mechanic with years of experience often is a more persuasive expert than the engineer with a superior education but no practical experience.

Prosecutor Trotter requests to "voir dire"* the expert to challenge her credentials.  It is the precise procedure used to challenge an expert's qualifications to testify.  Ms. Vito is able to answer his trick question on the timing of a car/engine combination that was never built, thereby establishing her credentials. This sets the stage for the dramatic conclusion in which Ms Vito testifies that the defense theory of the case "doesn't hold water."

In short, from beginning to the dramatic end, the law in My Cousin Vinny is spot on.  It is so good, that scenes are used in teaching evidence and trial advocacy in law schools and continuing legal education sessions. It is also a lesson that writers - even comedy writers - can get the law right and not lose any of the drama or the humor.

*Voir dire is Old French for speak the truth.  The term most commonly refers to the questioning of jurors to determine their qualifications to sit on a jury.  But the term is also used for preliminary questions related to the competency or qualifications of a witness - such as a witness being presented as an expert.

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