¶ … Cousin Vinny and American Criminal Justice
The 1992 film My Cousin Vinny starring Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei is a typical Hollywood foray into the realm of jurisprudence. So comical and seemingly realistic is the film (it takes place in the South -- where the unexpected nature of the backwoods setting gives the fish-out-of-water antics of Pesci's Gambini a convincing legitimacy) that one is willing to believe that it actually gives accurate representation of the criminal justice system and the court process in America. This paper will compare and contrast My Cousin Vinny with the actual American criminal justice system and court process, showing where the two meet and where (as in all Hollywood fare) they eventually depart.
The Film in Reality
In reality, it may be noted that even the United States is using My Cousin Vinny as a guide when it comes to justice and jurisprudence -- at least in Afghanistan (oddly enough). The Washington Post reports that classes on Afghan Judicial Procedures are being fortified by "providing officers with copies of the Afghan constitution and penal code, fingerprint kits and digital cameras -- and having them watch videos of American TV crime shows such as CSI: Las Vegas and courtroom movies such as My Cousin Vinny" (Alshamsa, 2010).
Likewise, in a bizarre twist of life reflecting art, there is the recent report from the 7th Circuit of a defense lawyer (ala Vincent Gambini) "jailed for contempt during trial [who] was not shown to have denied [the] defendant of effective assistance of counsel because counsel was sleep deprived in the county jail" (My Cousin Vinny cited by 7th Cir., 2009). The Sutherland v. Gaetz trial in Illinois was, close to the film's trial, one in which the defendant was brought up on charges of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery. The real comparison, however, is noticed here: "Defense counsel's obstinate behavior and the court's exasperation with it may be reminiscent for some of the contentious interplay between the fictional characters of Vincent LaGuardia Gambini and Judge Chamberlain Haller in the film My Cousin Vinny" (My Cousin Vinny cited by 7th Cir., 2009).
In the film, of course, Vinny finds the best rest he's had since arriving in the South after spending a night in jail. In reality, however, Sutherland (the defendant)'s attorney found no such rest in prison. The result was that Sutherland's lawyer lacked sufficient rest to represent his client in court. When Sutherland was found guilty, he appealed, asserting that his right to habeas corpus had been denied because he had been unable to fully have contact to his lawyer, whose belligerence in the courtroom had landed him in jail:
In his direct appeal and again throughout post-conviction proceedings, Sutherland claimed that he was denied the assistance of counsel because the jailing of his attorney prevented the preparation of his defense. After those challenges were unsuccessful, Sutherland sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied his petition, a decision which Sutherland now appeals and we affirm. (Sutherland v. Gaetz, 2009)
Sutherland's appeal was based upon United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 655-56 (1984), which states,
The right to the effective assistance of counsel is thus the right of the accused to require the prosecution's case to survive the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing. When a true adversarial criminal trial has been conducted ... The kind of testing envisioned by the Sixth Amendment has occurred. But if the process loses its character as a confrontation between adversaries, the constitutional guarantee is violated.
However, the appeals court denied the argument, stating that it "cannot accept that an attorney functioning on little rest, whether it be three hours of sleep or no sleep at all, would lack the presence of mind even to request a simple continuance" (Sutherland v. Gaetz).
Vinny and Court Proceedings
While The National Jurist, "a magazine for law students," ranks My Cousin Vinny at no. 18 in a top twenty list of the best legal films (behind such movies as Inherit the Wind -- a drama based on a "show trial" and The Firm -- a drama based on "drama"), BeyondLawSchool (2010) relates that "in more than one class, scenes from the movie have been...
Gaetz is an instance of real jurisprudence in action -- and a departure from Hollywood envisionings -- My Cousin Vinny does make some effort at reflecting accurately the American legal system in work.
As Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow (2006) point out in their documentary of courtroom films Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies, Vinny is essentially like the Harlem Globetrotters of law -- and the judge and prosecutor like "the hapless Washington Generals…Like the Globetrotters, Vinny generates laughs by violating most of [the] rules, though usually unaware of what he is doing. Also like the Globetrotters, Vinny demonstrates that he can really play the game when he needs to" (p. 111).
Part of the charm of Vinny, certainly, is his lack of courtroom etiquette coupled with his obvious care for his clientele. Where Vinny shines, therefore, is in "cross-examination." Before Vinny displays his talent for cross-examination, his credibility is questioned by everyone (including the judge). Yet when "Vinny demolishes a prosecution eyewitness' estimate that Bill and Stan were in the store for only the five minutes it took him to cook his grits by forcing him to admit that grits need twenty minutes to cook" and that any self-respecting cook would never produce them any sooner, Vinny establishes the fact through the witness' own testimony that the witness himself is mistaken (Bergman, Asimow, 2006, p. 111).
What Vinny does so well, and what is one of the hallmarks of the film, is his ability to "elicit an expert's opinion" -- which is to say, like any good trial lawyer, he shows the necessity of being able to show where holes exist in testimony, and provide expert testimony, in which there can be no holes. Vinny's emphasis on Mona Lisa's testimony concerning Positraction is a perfect example of how adept an attorney should be when it comes to knowing all the elements of a case inside and out: "Vinny underlines the importance of this testimony by having her explain what Positraction is. He then asks her to point out how she can tell from a photo that the car that left the tire marks had Positraction. Attorneys often have difficulty offering expert testimony in such a clear and concise manner" (Bergman, Asimow, 2006, p. 111).
Vinny also excels in the area of preparation, "showing that courtroom effectiveness requires hard work." However, here is one element where Hollywood takes a bit of license -- as Bergman and Asimow assert, "Vinny would have been out of luck had the witnesses refused to talk to him. Unlike civil cases, with their broad provisions for 'pretrial discover,' criminal cases offer defense attorneys no means of communicating with uncooperative prosecution witnesses" (Bergman, Asimow, 2006. p. 112). For the sake of comedy, however, Vinny does not run up against any such ill fortune, and the audience is left without a clue that investigating criminal cases is not necessarily as easy as all that.
One of the positive elements of the film, however, is its ability to highlight an inherent weakness in the American judicial system and the problems of eyewitness testimony. "Some criminal defendants have served years in prison before new information (often in the form of DNA evidence) proves that the eyewitnesses whose testimony put them there were mistaken" (Bergman, Asimow, 2006, p. 112). While My Cousin Vinny does not explore in great detail the reasons why eyewitness testimony can have a negative impact on a fair trial, Bergman and Asimow emphasize four factors to consider as reasons why eyewitness testimony is a weakness in American jurisprudence:
1) Stress hinders rather than sharpens perceptual ability; 2) people on the wrong end of a weapon typically look at the weapon and not the person holding it; 3) the accuracy of an identification is unrelated to a person's confidence in its accuracy; 4) cross-racial situations negatively affect the accuracy of identifications (Bergman, Asimow, 2006, p. 112).
Fortunately, as Vinny shows, eyewitness testimony (at least when it comes to identification of suspects) is nothing for a prosecution to rely upon. Vinny quickly dispatches with the eyewitness' credibility -- as any good defendant will do, using any trick or tool or contradictory piece of evidence to throw an eyewitness testimony out the window.
However, as the film also shows, a defendant himself can often be used as his own worst enemy: "When the sheriff tells Bill (who thinks he was arrested for shoplifting a can of tuna fish) that he's charged with murder, a shocked Bill says questioningly, 'I shot the clerk?' In court, the sheriff testifies that Bill confessed…
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