Death during a magic trick -- who is responsible?

Consider the following magic trick, as performed by Penn & Teller.

On the stage is a large, glass-sided tank full of water. There is a trapdoor at the top, and a padlock, some chains, etc. “Teller is going to recreate one of Houdini’s great escapes”, goes the patter. Penn picks a volunteer from the audience; this volunteer (under Penn’s guidance) pushes Teller’s head underwater in the tank, closes the lid (leaving no air gap at the top of the tank) and secures the padlock and chains on the trap door. We all watch as Teller tries to escape, fails, goes into convulsions and “drowns”; lying limply under the water having “failed” to open the hatch.

“Better get a lawyer”, says Penn to the volunteer, “A theater full of people just saw you drown Teller”.

Now obviously it’s a trick, although not the trick people thought they were going to see. And I still have not figured out how they do it.

But consider for a moment Penn’s statement above. If in fact Teller had drowned in the tank, has the volunteer who pushed him underwater and closed and locked the trapdoor committed murder? Manslaughter? or what?


ps: I do understand, in these litigious times, that the volunteer would be sued in civil court. I’m more curious about criminal acts.

No answers here, just a WAG that the volunteer had reasonable expectation that Teller would escape, and that it was all an illusion, and thus would not be held culpable.

However, let me ask an equally interesting question, inspired by the movie “Penn & Teller Get Killed” (which you really MUST see, although I warn you, I saw it and I was depressed for a whole week)… But anyway…

What if the illusion was so realistic that the volunteer was absolutely convinced that he had killed Teller, whereupon the person pulls out a gun and commits suicide. Would Penn or Teller be guilty of murder?

The usual verdict is “death by misadventure”. Fancy word for “accident”. People involved in the trick aren’t generally held responsible; the magician had the responsibility of ensuring his own safety.

As for Chas’s question, very very doubtful. You’d have to prove that Penn and Teller could have foreseen that the individual might kill himself. Good luck.

This brings me back to an episode of seinfeld where Jerry puts his car in to get serviced, the service guy steals the car. But the cops say it isnt considered a crime if you “willfully give the guy the keys”
i dunno how correct that is, but i just thought it was funny.

I personally think there’s a good chance of that. P&T’s tricks are sadistic, and the scenario I described (well, the original one too) is deliberately intended to cause extreme distress in the volunteer. But as you say, chances of a successful prosecution are slim. Manslaughter with a suspended sentence at best, maybe.

Actually, I would guess that the “volunteer” is a rube – that is, that she’s in on the trick. The magicians would probably want to use a planted volunteer to avoid any accusations of emotional distress.

Then again, maybe not. After all, this are Penn and Teller that we’re talking about.

Is that grammatically correct? This is not a criticism, but a real question. I have never heard it phrased that way, but it looks just strange enough to be the correct usage.

Mini-Hijack: In a recent televised special, Penn & Teller locked this lady’s boyfriend in a trunk with chains and padlocks and then threw him off a dock. The last we see, the trunk is floating away, and that’s it. Did I miss something or were we just “left hanging”?

Anybody remember the thread where I said not to take Hollywood’s word on any subject? IANAL, but when you give your car to a mechanic, it is understood that he is going to fix it and then return it to you. If he doesn’t return it, he has stolen the car.

Believe it or not, there’s actual legal precedent for this sort of case: Chung Ling Soo, one of the first people to perform the bullet catching trick, died when his gaffed gun malfunctioned and actually shot him. The London courts considered charging both his wife (who had acted as his assistant) and one of his stagehands, but once the actual mechanism of the trick was exposed, the death was ruled accidental. Most likely, any similar case would be decided the same way: if you kill a magician by attempting to help him with a trick, you are doing so with the supposition that he knows what he’s doing. There’s no actual intent to kill, so there’s no murder.

To answer Quasimodem’s hijack, that’s not correct grammar. You can consider “Penn and Teller” to be two nouns, making the plural appropriate, but in this case, the statement should be “…these are Penn and Teller…”. I think that you can also consider “Penn and Teller” to be a singular noun, meaning “The performing group consisting of Mr. Penn and Mr. Teller”, but in this case, you need to use both singular forms, “…this is Penn and Teller…”.

But then, we’re talking about magic tricks here, not grammar, so who cares?

IIAL. Some random points:

  1. The volunteer won’t get charged, but there’s no way the volunteer gets sued either, “even in these litigious times.” I am a plaintiffs’ lawyer and I not afraid to take longshot cases but that is way beyond the pale. On the facts as described no semi-competent lawyer should even think twice.

  2. The volunteer-suicide case is also a longshot but not necessarily one that wouldn’t get filed. Remember the Jenny Jones case where they humiliated the fellow with his friend’s gay crush and he subsequently killed him? TV show was found liable. Whether or not you agree, the factual setup is somewhat similar (there: Joe Blow gets invited on stage and finds out his friend has a gay crush on him and kills the friend. Here: Joe Blow gets invited on stage and is convinced that he has killed someone, and then kills himself).

  3. Seinfeld is baloney. It’s car theft. You grant consent to fix the car (and, if necessary thereto, drive it here and there), not to steal it.

  4. Maybe, just maybe, criminally negligent homicide might be filed against someone in the production company if the trick goes wrong. But it has to be pretty negligent and really outside the performer’s expectation. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee’s son here – another “not really an unloaded gun” case (although I don’t think anyone was charged in that case). Also, I am thinking a little about the tragedy during the filming of the Twilight Zone – weren’t there criminal charges filed there?

  5. Recently, a Texas Court of Appeals held that the community college was liable when it allowed a real knife to get substiuted for a fake knife during a perfomance of Dracula. The stabee certainly “expected” to be stabbed but not by a real knife. It’s not exactly apropos of anything but in the same general vein.

Okay, IANAL, but I’ve been thinking about this, and I can’t think of a scenario in which the authorities would pursue a case against the audience member, unless of course we’re talking about writing an episode for “Murder, She Wrote.”

First, if Teller were to die during the trick, the cops would likely look to Penn Jillette as a suspect, because, obviously, the trick went hideously wrong for some reason. They’d look for evidence of tampering with the trick and start looking into the state of P&T’s relationship, if they found any. Hapless audience member goes home.

Second, it looks like an accident, but how exactly did it happen? And wouldn’t professional magicians like P&T at least have a signal that says “Help! Something’s Wrong!” for just such eventuality? So again, the finger points at Penn - maybe he deliberately ignored his partner’s frantic secret signal. Again, Penn gets locked up and hapless audience member goes home.

Third, it was really an accident - something malfunctioned and no one reacted in time to save Teller. Penn gives him a large, expensive funeral and hapless audience member goes home, but sends a small wreath.

Fourth, if Teller actually died of natural causes, like a heart attack, while performing the trick, it will be judged a tragic accident and no charges filed. Hapless audience member goes home and Penn goes to Rio with his new partner! Ha ha! He got away with it!

The only reason to go after the audience member would be if there was some evidence that he was involved with the tampering, or somehow complicit with Penn in a scheme to bring about the death of Teller. And that goes into Jessica Fletcher territory.

Finally, I just want to say, these guys are professional illusionists. Just because it looks like they’re putting their lives in danger, it doesn’t mean they actually are putting their lives in danger.