What We Can Learn From 'My Cousin Vinny' About The Death Penalty

joe pesci my cousin vinny

In a recent, pre-Oscars blog post, I asked you all to name your favorite death penalty themed movies. We got lots of responses, from the obvious, to the more obscure, to the somewhat off-topic. One film that did not get mentioned at all is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year: My Cousin Vinny.

Lawyers love My Cousin Vinny. It recently ranked third on the American Bar Association Journal’s list of top 25 movies. For many folks it’s an entertaining fish-out-of-water comedy about New Yorkers in Alabama, with classic (and in one case Oscar-worthy) performances by Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei and Herman Munster.

For its director, Jonathan Lynn, it is about:

“how wrong capital punishment is and how people can so easily be executed when they’re not guilty if they’re not adequately represented or if there’s a lack of relevant evidence available.”

my cousin vinny posterIndeed, the plot of this 1992 comedy revolves around a capital trial in Alabama. While the film is too light-hearted to generate outrage even though two young men are facing a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit, it does, gently, expose how our courts can come perilously close to convicting the innocent, even when, in the words of the director, “Nobody’s doing anything wrong.”

Of course, if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the 20 years since the premiere of My Cousin Vinny, it’s that the reality of capital punishment in Alabama (and elsewhere) often fails to live up to this pleasant ideal that “nobody’s doing anything wrong.”

There is, for example, the case of Thomas Arthur, who is scheduled to be executed in Alabama despite the fact that someone else has confessed to the crime.  Arthur is seeking DNA tests to prove that this alternate suspect is telling the truth, but the state is resisting.  The execution will happen on March 29, unless the Governor intervenes.

UPDATE: Thomas Arthur, who was scheduled to be executed on March 29th, has been granted a stay based on a challenge to Alabama’s lethal injection procedure.

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8 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From 'My Cousin Vinny' About The Death Penalty

  1. Well, it is so very sad that Oklahoma killed Timothy Stemple by lethal injection nearly last week, despite the fact that his wife Trisha's death was an accident, NOT murder, and in spite of the evidence and truth of his innocence that went TOTALLY ignored! And now, tonight, Mississippi will kill Larry Matthew "Matt" Puckett for murder in spite of his innocence that went totally ignored! The victims' families are about to satisfy their vengeance by claiming that they'll get "justice" by killing Larry by lethal injection while unknowingly causing his family more grief in the loss of their loved one to state-sponsored murder! And yet it's more idiotic when the victim's family is STILL unaware that her husband could be the one who killed her out of rage, and the husband will do the same thing by killing Larry by state-sponsored murder too! My heart breaks for both families, and I pray for their comfort and forgiveness for what they're unknowingly doing; I also pray that God may comfort and forgive Larry in his final hours leading up to his imminent death. May God forgive us all, for we know not what we do. :cry:

  2. Well, it is so very sad that Oklahoma killed Timothy Stemple by lethal injection nearly last week, despite the fact that his wife Trisha’s death was an accident, NOT murder, and in spite of the evidence and truth of his innocence that went TOTALLY ignored! And now, tonight, Mississippi will kill Larry Matthew “Matt” Puckett for murder in spite of his innocence that went totally ignored! The victims’ families are about to satisfy their vengeance by claiming that they’ll get “justice” by killing Larry by lethal injection while unknowingly causing his family more grief in the loss of their loved one to state-sponsored murder! And yet it’s more idiotic when the victim’s family is STILL unaware that her husband could be the one who killed her out of rage, and the husband will do the same thing by killing Larry by state-sponsored murder too! My heart breaks for both families, and I pray for their comfort and forgiveness for what they’re unknowingly doing; I also pray that God may comfort and forgive Larry in his final hours leading up to his imminent death. May God forgive us all, for we know not what we do. :cry:

  3. You watch shows on tv like Law and Order and they brainwash people into believing that the death penalty is ok, it's not and never will be . how many people have their innocence proved years down the track and how many families have mourned loved one needlessly. it will never be ok, men should not judge life, only the higher beings know the truth and the right to judge.

  4. You watch shows on tv like Law and Order and they brainwash people into believing that the death penalty is ok, it’s not and never will be . how many people have their innocence proved years down the track and how many families have mourned loved one needlessly. it will never be ok, men should not judge life, only the higher beings know the truth and the right to judge.

  5. FYI – not sure how this movie works in as a capital punishment theme. When I wrote it (I am the writer of the movie) – I didn't consider that as an underlying theme.

    It is there largely because of the irony that a first time lawyer who struggled to get through the bar exam – has a murder case. To me – that's funny!

    I have friend who is a criminal litigator – who saw the movie thought that part – a first time lawyer gets a murder case – is way over the top. But I remember that my original research I found that actually occurs in the south. So it went into the movie. That's kinda disturbing!

  6. Thank you Dale … I thought it was interesting that the director Jonathan Lynn said he thought the movie was about capital punishment … And you're right, it is disturbing that under qualified and/or under resourced lawyers still get death penalty cases …

    UPDATE: Thomas Arthur, who was scheduled to be executed tonight, has been granted a stay based on a challenge to Alabama's lethal injection procedure.

  7. FYI – not sure how this movie works in as a capital punishment theme. When I wrote it (I am the writer of the movie) – I didn’t consider that as an underlying theme.

    It is there largely because of the irony that a first time lawyer who struggled to get through the bar exam – has a murder case. To me – that’s funny!

    I have friend who is a criminal litigator – who saw the movie thought that part – a first time lawyer gets a murder case – is way over the top. But I remember that my original research I found that actually occurs in the south. So it went into the movie. That’s kinda disturbing!

  8. Thank you Dale … I thought it was interesting that the director Jonathan Lynn said he thought the movie was about capital punishment … And you’re right, it is disturbing that under qualified and/or under resourced lawyers still get death penalty cases …

    UPDATE: Thomas Arthur, who was scheduled to be executed tonight, has been granted a stay based on a challenge to Alabama’s lethal injection procedure.