In 1992, the Jonathan Lynn directed movie My Cousin Vinny, made a perfect blend of courtroom drama with commercial comedy. Though the elements of criminal law and courtroom procedures distinctly deviated from reality, the movie stirred constructive debate for years to come. Joe Pesci played the role of funny New York lawyer Vincent Gambini or Vinny, Marisa Tomei played his girlfriend Monalisa or Lisa. Vinnys’s cousin Bill, along with his friend Stan, gets implicated in a murder case for which the trial takes place in an Alabama court. Vinny comes from New York to defend his cousin as a favor towards family. The case is about a utility store clerk’s murder and incidentally most of the clues point to Bill and Stan. Right after their visit to the store, the actual assailants, who drove an almost identical car, executed the crime.
Ironically, Vinny had taken more than six years to clear his bar exam and had to win at least one case to get an approval for marrying Lisa. Completely devoid of judicial procedures and naïve about professional etiquette, Vinny finds it hard to plead the case. His incompetence makes an instant impression on the Judge who struggles to control his temper during the proceedings. The courtroom drama gets alive with witty remarks of struggling-to-be-lawyer. Judge Chamberlain Haller, played by Fred Gwynne, has tough time to instill discipline in the case proceedings. There is also an evident clash of cultures between a New Yorkers visiting Alabama.
With the start of the case, the movie seemingly portrays many aspects of the US legal system including the courtroom procedures, rights of defendants, judicial arraignment and errors that can be construed as contempt of court. Vinny, a complete novice, finds it hard to understand the basics of pleading the case. After hearing the charges the judge expects him to plead guilty or not guilty. Vinny repeatedly labels the charges to be “bullshit”, earning him the ire of Judge Haller. In reality such impudence might have resulted in stripping of his bar license. Astonishingly, he did not even have the license to practice law.
Another fictional turn is that the judge does not make any significant effort to check Vinny’s license as a member of the bar apart from a phone call. While doing so, Vinny violated the California Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1-300: Unauthorized Practice of Law, under sub-part (B) which states “A member shall not practice law in a jurisdiction where to do so would be in violation of regulations of the profession in that jurisdiction.”
However, Vinny is obviously a street-smart New Yorker and arranges his acquaintance to prove his eligibility. In real life such a lax of interest in checking a lawyer’s credentials may result in criminals defending other criminals in courts. Obviously, he had to lie about his identity to the Judge and lying to the Judge is violation of California Business and Professions Code sections 6076 and 6077 under Rules of Professional Conduct.
The formal procedures of the court seemed superficial in the light of hard reality. The first moral dilemma that is encountered by the law bodies in such cases is the ability of the defendants to select a paid lawyer for them. Under California law, the defendant has the right to choose the lawyer of his choice but the guarantee of such a lawyer’s competence is not measured till the case hearing begins. If the defendant ends up hiring a cousin as incompetent as Vinny and loses the case, should the law authority intervene?
Thorough incompetence in practice has also been dealt by those who framed the law for California. Vinny personified the efficacy of the Rule 3-110; “Failing to Act Competently”. The subsection (A) states that, “A member shall not intentionally, recklessly, or repeatedly fail to perform legal services with competence.” As for Vinny, two innocents could get punished because he added his stupidity to Bill’s bad luck.
Bill and Stan get quite apprehensive about Vinnys ability and rightly so, as murder is a serious charge to be handled by a rookie. Even when Bill tries to express his doubt, Vinny snubs him by making a simple point that its Bill’s life that is at stake. At least twice in the case, Vinny is charged with contempt of court and sent to lock-up. In reality, either such situation doesn’t arise in the first place or the judge takes a disciplinary action against the erring Lawyer. (California Business and Professions Code sections 6076 and 6077)
As the case proceeds, Bill realizes that Vinny is his best chance to get saved. The state recommended lawyer got so nervous, when he was tried, that couldn’t even make a single statement without stuttering. The well polished prosecution team reveals brilliant witness testimonies which further scare Bill and his friend. Quite often the state prosecution teams do a good homework in homicide cases. Law of the land owes a moral responsibility to the public in dealing with such heinous crimes, though the defendant was innocent in this case.
Vinny and Lisa are and genuinely do look, out of the place in the rural background of Alabama. The ensuing conflicts with locals and constant bickering with the conditions took a toll on poor Vinny. But as the case proceeds he is able to demonstrate his prowess in using simple logic while cross-questioning the witnesses. He exhibits incredible intuitiveness to prove that even an eye witness account cannot be taken as unchallengeable. With the mud on the window pane and power of glasses that needed a recheck, the eyewitness’s testimony on recognizing Bill and Stan, was ripped apart by Vinny.
His girlfriend Lisa that looked a beautiful but dumb proves to be a genuine expert on automobiles. Ironically, she felt helpless in helping out Vinny in the case, her expert observation on the skid marks made by the assailants’ car, simply turned the case on its head. She proved her efficacy of being an expert when the prosecution tried to hogwash her with a flawed question on ignition temperature about a particular engine. The engine described by the prosecution did not even exist in the year that he asked.
Vinny and Lisa end up in a heated argument while he tries to question her as a witness, though expert witness’s opinion should already to be known to the lawyer who calls the witness. Adding to Vinny’s errors, a lawyer should already have the information of the answer that he wants the witness to render. This rule is widely accepted in legal circles as the “Eleventh Commandment” of Trial Advocacy by Professor Mark Dobson.
Through hook and crook and going through hoops as well, Vinny manages to win the case, rescuing his cousin from a likely indictment. As a reward for winning, he also won the right to marry his sweetheart, Lisa.
In real life however, Vinny might have been booked for fraud and impersonation.
References and Citations
“Rules of professional Conduct of the State Bar of California.”:
The Rules of Professional Conduct are rules of the Supreme Court of California
regulating attorney conduct in this state. See In re Attorney Discipline System (1998) 19
Cal. 4th 582, 593-597 [79 Cal Rptr.2d 836]; Howard v. Babcock (1993) 6 Cal. 4th 409,
418 [25 Cal Rptr.3d 80]. The rules have been adopted by the Board of Governors of the
State Bar of California and approved by the Supreme Court pursuant to California
Business and Professions Code sections 6076 and 6077.
Mark Dobson, Professor of Trial Advocacy, Nova Southeastern University (Feb. 2, 1999). See also BERGMAN & ASIMOW, supra note 5, at 105–06.