The Cousin Vinny Syndrome

This weekend I found myself judging two rounds of college-level mock trial competition. I was quite impressed with the level of preparation and dedication these students showed, and how well these pre-law students knew the rules of evidence, and knew how to conduct themselves in the mock courtroom. But what really surprised me was the level of theatricality these students put into their witness characterizations. Each of the trials I judged had two witnesses in the car business, and three out of four of these car experts seemed to model their performance on Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning role in My Cousin Vinny, right down to the mannerisms and heavy Brooklyn accent. I can’t blame these students for being influenced by this performance.  This is one of my favorite trial movies also, and a lot of trial lawyers will say the same.  There are a lot of things this movie can actually teach aspiring trial attorneys.  For example, any trial lawyer could benefit from studying the cross-examinations of the three eyewitnesses, especially Vinny’s brilliant questioning of the guy who claimed to have cooked his grits in five minutes.  And the friendly relationship between prosecution and defense counsel, even while both were going all out to win, should be a model for many lawyers today.

Nevertheless, I felt the need to remind these students after the competition that real life trials are quite different from trials on tv and the movies, and that since in real life witnesses usually try to tone down their colorful personalities, these mock trial witnesses might come across more believably if they toned down their performances a bit.  But the students understood something that a lot of trial lawyers sometimes forget: trials are a form of theatre, and jurors, who are conditioned by television and movies, appreciate some entertainment value in the presentation of evidence.  Even if a witness’s or attorney’s personality and mannerisms seem distracting from the issue the party needs to prove, an entertaining witness or attorney can still make parts of the trial memorable, and juries may be favorably disposed toward the party who provides a modicum of enjoyment in the course of sitting through what feels to the jury like an overly lengthy, dry and sometimes dull process.  So while the students perhaps need to learn to tone it down, they reminded me that sometimes you also have to think about spicing it up.

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