What ‘My Cousin Vinny’ Got Wrong: Public Defenders Fulfill Gideon’s Promise Day In, Day Out

By Kearns Davis

Fred Lind, Chief Public Defender for Guilford County, recently shared a letter from a juror:

Last week I had the privilege of serving on a jury for a case defended by Mr. A. Brennan Aberle. I was so impressed by his performance on this case I felt I had to put something on the record. At the start Mr. Aberle promised a defense based on facts and reason, and he delivered on that promise. …

I am often worried that justice is only for those who can afford it, but Mr. Aberle’s effective defense of his client reassures me that the freedom of ALL residents of Guilford County is well-protected by your office. I don’t believe a better defense could have been purchased at any price.

“My Cousin Vinny” (1992) is a legal film classic. But its caricature of a stammering, timid, poorly prepared public defender reinforced a stereotype that is widely shared but wildly wrong. As those who appear regularly in criminal court know, public defenders are experts. It is the public defender who spends every day in the same courthouse, working with judges and prosecutors and handling the cases that are staples for indigent clients. One United States district judge, who observes skilled, experienced counsel every day, describes the Federal Public Defender’s office in his district as, “lawyer for lawyer, the best trial law firm in the State of North Carolina.”

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