My Cousin Vinny is an open love letter to trial procedure and the deep south. In this three-part series, Jackie Houser shares some of her favorite takeaways from this 90’s classic along with her own sage advice from all her years of trial experience.
Poor naive Vinny accepted a criminal case having no experience both in this area of law and in the litigation process. He was compelled to help his cousin and friend simply out of a sense of familial duty and a can-do attitude. He had a hunch that it would not be easy; that “hunch” was an understatement.
Even with his mistakes and missteps, Vinny perseveres, advocating for his cousin during the day, studying at night, and finally--with the support of his lovely fiancé--doing the work. He gathers the evidence against his clients, he questions witnesses, he visits the scene of the crime, and he takes pictures. By doing the work, he is able to dispute the witnesses’ claims, offer evidence contrary to the charges against his clients, and (in a signature Hollywood happy ending) win the case and catch the real crooks!
Should you ever need an attorney, make sure you find an attorney who is willing to do the work—preferably BEFORE you are in the middle of trial. I cannot speak for every attorney out there as we all have our own ways of managing our cases, but here’s my process: from the very beginning of a case, I take into consideration what this case would be like in a trial. Most of my cases settle before making it that far, but I prepare for trial regardless so that I am ready for trial should we need to make that step. I learned long ago that when I prepare for trial and I am prepared for settlement; but If I only prepare for settlement, I am not prepared for trial.
Outside of the paperwork and administrative work associated with managing a file, I also do the following:
I investigate early, e.g., interview witnesses before they disappear. For me, a witness is not just someone who may have seen the collision, but also someone who may have heard it and then came to the scene. It may also be someone who came to help or take pictures. Their recollections can be very helpful in the case. I get their statement as soon as possible while the incident is fresh on their minds.
I also collect and review pictures or videos. These pictures could include the scene, the vehicles, or my client’s progress as they recover from injuries. Sometimes we get lucky with video footage from traffic cameras. In most circumstances these days, the photos are provided by the clients, but there are still times when I send someone (or I go myself) to take snapshots or video of the scene, looking for anything that can help my client’s case. Additionally, I have found that visuals (such as pictures, video, diagrams, etc..) are always helpful for the jury. It helps them draw a picture in their mind of the events and locations.
Finally, I stay observant of the culture, current events, and recent cases that may be used to help support the case. In the movie, Vinny learned the proper way to cook grits and, ironically, this knowledge became vitally important to the case. Similarly, I find that by staying up to date with what is happening in the world around me, it helps me with jury selection and with finding something relatable in the case.
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