There have been many iconic law movies such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Inherit the Wind” and “12 Angry Men” and many iconic television legal dramas, such as “Perry Mason,” “L.A. Law” and “Law and Order.” As the movie “My Cousin Vinny” has now turned 25, and as a sequel in the form of a novel has now come out (Kelter, Lawrence, “Back to Brooklyn” (Down and Out Books, 2017)), chronicling Vinny and Lisa’s return to Brooklyn for Vinny to start a criminal law practice, I thought we could revisit the film and its place in the pantheon.
Despite being a comedy, the film actually delivers a powerful message about a trial with innocent defendants. This message is not often present in the real world. In a criminal trial, in the minority situation where it appears that the defendant may not be guilty, rarely do we see a prosecutor accepting it and more rarely would we see a law enforcement official even remotely consider doing a favor for a defense lawyer, as Sheriff Farley did at the end of the film.
Unfortunately, in the real world, the wrong incentives exist. Prosecutors feel they must win and that wins and losses reflect ability and will dictate career success. “I never lost a case as a prosecutor,” is a refrain we hear, which only exacerbates the problem. These misguided incentives are very bad for our criminal justice system. Many, including me, and my late father Arnold I. Burns, have said that no lawyer should be eligible to become a prosecutor without first serving as a defense lawyer for three years. This simple rule would improve our system tremendously and would make truth seeking much more prevalent. As a horrific case in point, I cite the Arthur Anderson prosecution, or more accurately, fiasco. There, federal prosecutors went on a reign of terror, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruling that no crime had even been committed. See Powell, Sidney, “Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice” (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2014). In the wake of that misconduct, the company was destroyed, along with more than 80,000 jobs.
Ironically, under the comedy umbrella, the film weaves together many aspects of criminal procedure and the trial process. Cross examination, voir dire of witnesses, and courtroom demeanor, conduct and yes, dress code, are all covered very well. The film also portrays things that many of us have seen in court ourselves. Major legal figures, including the late Antonin Scalia and Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, have praised the film, and it has even been cited in at least one court opinion. U.S. v. Bronstein, No. 16-3003 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
One example of things we have seen: At one point Mr. Gambini comes into his own after much fumbling in court. Objecting to the introduction of expert testimony, he argues that he had no advance notice of the witness and received no forensic report. He goes on to argue that he is entitled to a report, in order to consult his own expert to examine it and independently test its conclusions. Judge Chamberlain Haller (played by the late Fred Gwynne [note 1]) calmly, and positively says “Mr. Gambini, that is a lucid, intelligent, well thought out objection,” and then says “overruled.” In the real world, anyone who has practiced criminal law in the Eastern District of New York will recall the late, legendary U.S. District Judge Eugene H. Nickerson, routinely praising a lawyer with “yes, Mr. [so and so], that is an excellent point, and you presented it so well.” He would then pause, smile and announce “denied.”
This and other realistic references must, however, yield to the true message of the film. I asked a friend of mine, a well known legal thriller author and who has also worked as a screenwriter, what theme the writers were pursuing. He said they were trying to counter the common stereotype of a biased small Southern town, and thus wanted to portray that town as being fair to the brash novice lawyer and the two out of town defendants, including Stanley “Roth-en-Stine,” who was so obviously Jewish.
Interestingly, however, what may have started out with that regional concept clearly morphed into a much more powerful legal one. Time and time again, when a person may not be guilty, “hatches are battened down,” “ranks are closed” and prosecutors (and witnesses and most horrifically, expert witnesses) will go close to the line, or even step over it, again, in order to “win.” Recognizing this, in Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935), Justice George Sutherland wrote for the Supreme Court that, “the U.S. Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party … . his interest, therefore in a criminal case is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”
In the film, Judge Haller, when he sees the defense starting to score points, becomes interested and comes across as a neutral jurist seeking truth. I have always been very struck, not to be corny, with the way Judge Haller comes across in those scenes. Similarly, the late actor Lane Smith’s character, prosecutor Jim Trotter III, moves to dismiss all charges when it becomes apparent that someone else had perpetrated the murder at the “Sack-O-Suds” convenience mart. Perhaps more important, he does not act like a sore loser afterward, which is very common in real cases after rare trial acquittals.[note 2]
The movie thus portrays a small town Alabama court that gives everyone a fair shake in a murder case, and accepts the fact that the particular out of town [note 3] defendants at trial turned out in fact to be innocent. Interspersed are all the jokes, such as Gambini’s legendary opening statement, to wit: “[e]verything that guy just said is bullsh*t; thank you” and Judge Haller, after being told that potential hostile witness Mona Lisa Vito was actually Mr. Gambini’s fiancée, says “well that would certainly explain the hostility.”
In the end, “My Cousin Vinny” is a powerful legal film, which is ironic, as noted, since it is a comedy. Its powerful message needs to be observed much more in our criminal courts—and that is, it is no shame if it develops that someone is innocent and there is no shame in the court and the prosecutors recognizing and accepting that the core function of a trial is the truth and not prosecutorial wins and losses.
 Fred Gwynne, all 6 foot 5 inches of him, was a Harvard graduate and of course portrayed Herman Munster in “The Munsters.” He died young, just one year and four months after the release of My Cousin Vinny, at 66, from pancreatic cancer.
 After I won an acquittal in around 2002 in Suffolk County, NY for a client in state court, the prosecutor angrily asked the judge if he could “tell the jurors about that incident that the Court wouldn’t allow us to introduce.” (some other bad act). I objected and the judge prohibited it.
 A good friend of mine once told me of his appearance in a Florida federal court. The judge right away negatively said “I see you are from New York.” My friend then said “actually judge I went to high School in Miami and grew up here,” to which the judge, with a totally changed demeanor said, “oh, so you’re a Florida boy.” The point is obvious and that is that the movie positively counters another negative real world point, which is regional bias.
Doug Burns served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York for nine years (1987-1996) and has practiced white-collar defense since that time to the present. He is also a media legal commentator.