While there are many metaphors in My Cousin Vinny that would be interesting to explore, and we certainly could delve into the “transformative moments” that are peppered throughout the movie, the more interesting aspect of the movie is in the area of expert witnessing. To jump right in, when all seems lost for the jailed boys, William and Stanley (accused of murdering a store clerk, but thinking they had only accidentally shoplifted a can of tuna), Vinny (shifting for a moment to another scene) suddenly sees something in a picture taken by his girlfriend, Lisa, of the escape car's tire tracks.
Now, since we know from the dripping faucet scene that Lisa is somewhat an expert in tools and repairs (normally the domain of manly men), since she was able to recite from memory all the specs and attributes of a special kind of wrench capable of fixing the drip, it is not a far stretch for us to begin to realize that she is not your typical New York girlie-girl despite her prissy ways and her New York style clothes and attitude.
We will soon find out that she proves a force to be reckoned with. Vinny, up until now, takes this for granted. He doesn't want her help even though she keeps trying to help him. But he will soon recognize the value of her unconventional talents that will play such a critical and pivotal part of the trial.
An expert witness is one who has knowledge or experience beyond what is considered common. Expert witnesses can bring credibility to a legal case, or they can be useful to cast doubt on evidence or facts presented by the opposing attorney. Snap! Lisa has the experience and knowledge of cars beyond the average witness or players in the court!
“Personal knowledge and experience can be the basis of an expert’s testimony” (Dvoskin and Guy, 2008, p. 204). Before testifying before a jury, an expert witness must be qualified by the court, based on expertise, accomplishments, and training directly related to the subject matter of the case. Qualifying an expert witness must be governed by a judge very carefully to ensure that the expert’s testimony is convincing enough to allow its inclusion at trial, and is accepted and believed by the jurors. Impressing the jury with expert testimony is often crucial at trial. Snap! Lisa blew away the prosecution’s FBI forensic “expert” to the nether regions of faulty perceptions and unqualified evidence.
The lawyer responsible for bringing forward the expert witness is responsible for convincing the judge that the witness, in fact, possesses specialized training and relevant experience. The opposing lawyer has the right to cross-examine the expert witness in an attempt to refute and question the qualifications of the witness. Questioning is focused on the background, training, education, skills, experience, and knowledge of the expert. Education and degrees are often highly regarded by courts as evidence of expertise, but an expert witness can also be qualified based on experience and skills alone (Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 702).
Once the questioning of the witness has concluded, the court will thenmake a ruling on whether or not the witness will be accepted as an expert in their field. Snap! Lisa immediately detects the prosecutor’s trick question and leaves him speechless when, in great detail and with precipitous speed, she tells the court just how sneaky he was attempting to be by asking her a “bullsh—t” question. She readily points out how the question cannot be answered intelligently.
An expert’s experience, qualifications, and credibility should be presented to the jury without any hint of boasting or exaggeration (well, in Lisa’s case, there was a bit of swanking). It is the lawyer’s job to bring out the expert’s superior qualities, and it is the judge, as gatekeeper, to decide if the witness’s testimony satisfies his requisite basis of competency. Snap! After the prosecutor’s voir dire, which establishes Lisa’s qualifications, Vinny, like the true street-smart New Yorker he is, cleverly but rationally leads Lisa to a triumphant conclusion that exonerates William and Stanley. It is important to note the conjunction “or” connecting “knowledge,” “skill,” “experience,” “training,” and “education.
This means that under Rule 702 only one of the above five are needed, not ALL of them. A common misperception is that one needs to have a PhD or to have gone to Harvard or MIT to testify as an expert witness. This is not true either legally or practically. Many expert witnesses have no advance degree and there are even a good number of expert witnesses who have no college degrees whatsoever Snap! Think our girl, Lisa. Who is qualified to be an expert witness? This will ultimately be determined by the trial judge in the case at hand. Here, context matters.
The trial judge acts as a gatekeeper in this regard. The judge’s decision will be based on both the expert witness’s background/experience as well as specific issues in dispute in the particular case. He recognizes that “[t]hese are not personal opinions but opinions that come directly from their expertise. For that reason, experts are asked their opinions in phrases that emphasize the nature of the expertise” (Brodsky, 2013, p. 170).There is no doubt that this was an unconventional tribunal, being tried in a very conservative and suspicious jurisdiction and in a cultural system (the "Southern" ways) that does things their own way and that wants to impose those “standards” accordingly.
However in this case, an inexperienced “Yankee” lawyer, using his newly acquired appreciation of evidence discovery and state rules and/or laws (gleaned from the book given to him by the prosecutor and miraculously studied by Lisa, who tells him about the discovery rule) probably for the first time in his life, and his flippant partner, outdid themselves and won the day.
To conclude, we can comfortable say that without Lisa Vinny almost certainly would not have won the case. Not only did she provide the snap shot that kicked him in the ass, she also served well as an “expert” expert witness. She busted the butts of the southern, conservative, and suspicious customs and taught them a thing or two. Rule 702 virtually saved the day.
Brodsky, S. L. (2013). Testifying in court: Guidelines and Maxims for the Expert Witness. Washington, DC: APA.
Federal Rules of Evidence. (2010). Rule 702. Printed by The Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives.