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

March 20, 2012

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.