A Quick Look at Vinny Gambini in the Legal System

Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit started a recently issued opinion with a citation to the popular film My Cousin Vinny. “In 1992, Vincent Gambini taught a master class in cross-examination.” Later in Novato Healthcare Center v. N.L.R.B. he continued in a footnote with a rather lengthy excerpt from the film, quoting Mr. Gambini cross-examining a prosecution witness on the subject of cooking grits. 

Judge Garland’s approving cite of the film is only the latest in a number of acknowledgements to My Cousin Vinny as a source of interest to lawyers, law professors, law students, and judges in the areas of evidence, rules of procedure, and legal ethics. As the National Law Journal notes,  a number of appellate judges have cited to Vinny in their rulings. State court judges cite to the movie as well. See for example S. C. v. State (S.C. v. State, 224 So. 3d. 249 (3d Dist., 2017)) , in which the court likens the appellant’s confession to a “My Cousin Vinny” defense. 


S.C., in response to the confession, makes a MyCousinVinny defense. There are many gems in the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny – rated by the American Bar Association Journal as the third greatest legal movie of all time – about trial lawyering and procedure, but in one particular scene an arrestee is being asked about shooting a store clerk after inadvertently taking a can of tuna fish. The sheriff asks:

Sheriff: When’d you shoot him?

Arrestee: What?

Sheriff: At what point did you shoot the clerk?

Arrestee: I shot the clerk?

Sheriff: Yes. When did you shoot him?

Arrestee: I shot the clerk?

The sheriff then gets interrupted by a staff member and the interrogation abruptly ends. At the subsequent trial for the murder of the store clerk, the sheriff, recounting the confession, reads the transcript of the arrestee’s statement, “I shot the clerk,” as a declaration rather than as a question, which changed the meaning.

S.C., in MyCousinVinny fashion, argues that the “he” in his confession can be read another way. S.C. contends the “he” in his statement, “He has no idea I took them,” was referring to his friend, and not the friend’s brother. S.C. claims he stole the driver’s licenses from his friend – who may have had authorization or permission to have the driver’s licenses – and not from his friend’s brother. How one views the “he” makes all the difference, S.C. says, because section 322.212(1)(a) requires the driver’s license be stolen from the person to whom it was issued, and not a third party.

(Citations omitted)


Law professors recommend the film to their students as a “must see” for legal practice.  Alberto Bernabe argues convincingly that law faculty can use the movie to demonstrate the “real world” even more effectively than one might think. “Everything that happens in the trial in Vinny could happen and sometimes does happen in real life.”

NB: My Cousin Vinny was the AALS Law and Film Annual Meeting scripted film choice in January 2018.