There are many movies about the courtroom and the legal process. While Hollywood rarely bothers with accurately portraying our legal system, it’s with good reason. Courtrooms are mostly boring. One movie that gets it (mostly) right: My Cousin Vinny.
My Cousin Vinny was released in 1992. It’s about two “youths” from New York wrongly charged with murdering a convenience store clerk in Alabama. Luckily, one of the defendants has a cousin who passed the bar six weeks ago, who drives down to defend him.
Most of the major flaws are obvious. Murder trials don’t start a week after the crime, and it’s impossible for Vinny to represent both defendants. But otherwise the movie is so good it’s actually shown to students in law school. The movie follows the criminal process pretty closely. The “youths” are arraigned first, which is their opportunity to hear what they are charged with, and bail is set. Next is a preliminary hearing, where the prosecutor just has to show there is some evidence to support the charges.
The opening statement of the prosecutor is frequently cited as the most accurate part of the movie. The prosecutor changes his inflection and speed. He refers to the victim by name, but never the defendants. Vinny’s cross examination is also text book. He gets the witness to agree to indisputable facts, then attacks the witnesses’ credibility with questions that have only one answer. He is forceful and confrontational with a witness who is obviously obstinate, but uses a “soft cross” with the elderly lady who just can’t see well. Throughout the trial, almost everything occurs on screen, could actually occur in a real trial.
Another scene in the movie is extremely accurate in a different way. After Vinny has screwed up enough the judge has thrown him in jail, his girlfriend asks him “they didn’t teach you that in law school?” Vinny responds, “No, they teach you Contracts!” There’s a lot of truth in this scene. Law school teaches you plenty about how to apply previous decisions, and interpreting statutes. But just like in the movie, most of being a great lawyer comes from ability and work learned outside of law school, both in court and life.
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