Legally Speaking: Magic in the Courtroom

John G. Browning Mar. 12, 2009, 8:12am

For a profession as buttoned-down as the practice of law is generally, it employs a fair number of metaphors drawn from the decidedly less conventional world of magic and magicians.

We speak of calling a surprise witness as pulling a rabbit out of one's hat, we scoff at an opposing expert's attempts at sleight of hand with the facts, we wonder at what else a courtroom adversary may have up his sleeve, and we criticize the other side's case as smoke and mirrors.

But what about when magic literally appears in a case?

On rare occasions, that old black magic is actually the subject of the lawsuit. French President Nicolas Sarkozy sued last year over voodoo dolls that were made in his image (he was successful, but received damages of only one euro).

Here in the U.S., St. Paul resident Mary Nabila Muma filed a federal lawsuit against her ex-husband Marcellus Muma, claiming that another woman was using voodoo to steal Marcellus from her.

Ironically, the case had a spiritual resolution as well. After losing control of her car on a busy freeway and emerging unscathed, Ms. Muma felt that God was sending her a message. She promptly dismissed her lawsuit, saying that "I feel that God wants me to withdraw the case and hand Marcellus over to him."

On other occasions, however, it's the lawyer who engages in feats of prestidigitation, and I don't mean that metaphorically. A recent case in Philadelphia, Blash v ABA Construction Group et al., brought the unique talents of lawyer Steven G. Leventhal of the firm Reger, Rizzo and Darnall to light.

It seems Mr. Leventhal is not just a skilled defense attorney with over 20 years of experience under his belt. He is also a professional magician who has performed in more than 65 countries, and for audiences that have included Arnold Schwarzenegger, music icon Quincy Jones, and an Israeli prime minister. Leventhal was fascinated with magic and illusion since childhood and saw no reason to abandon the magician's skills he had honed when he began practicing law.

Leventhal has been an adjunct professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law, where he attributes the near-perfect attendance record for his classes to the fact that he used Vegas-quality magic demonstrations to help illustrate the legal topics he was teaching.

Leventhal uses magic tricks in front of juries much the same way – to illustrate a point that he is making, such as the other side's attempt to hide the truth.

In one trick, for example, the lawyer/magician slowly folds a one dollar bill while explaining to the jury that the pieces of the plaintiff's case just don't add up; as he unfolds the bill, the amazed jury sees a bill that appears to have been cut apart and reattached the wrong way, with the corners in the middle.

Another favorite feat of legerdemain features Leventhal unfolding the $1 bill to reveal a $100 bill and then turning it back to a $1 bill again.

In fact, Leventhal's renown for using magic tricks as part of his trial lawyer's arsenal prompted his opponents in the Blash case to file a motion asking the judge to keep Leventhal from performing any such feats or even mentioning to the jury that he is a professional magician.

In their motion, plaintiff's attorneys William J. Coppol and John T. Dooley, alleged that the magic performance has "absolutely nothing to do with the substantive issues" and that the very notion of a lawyer performing such tricks would be "highly prejudicial, confusing, [and] misleading for the jury."

The defense attorney responded in true lawyer/magician fashion, filing a "Reply Seeking to Make Plaintiff's Limine Motion Disappear."

While conceding that he does in fact employ magic tricks as parts of his opening and closing arguments, Leventhal denied that there was anything prejudicial about it. He pointed out that trial lawyers frequently use "anecdotal stories, biblical references, and… examples of pop cultural icons" to "hammer their trial themes home."

Furthermore, Leventhal argued, every trial judge has a standard jury instruction that cautions the jury that what they hear from lawyers is not evidence, but rather argument.

As Leventhal pointed out, "The jury is smart enough to understand that the facts make or break a case. No degree of showmanship can change the facts."

The defense attorney/magician also took his opposing counsel to task for filing what he described as "the most insane, silly and frivolous pleading" he had ever seen. Just because he chose to "travel the globe to learn a special set of performance skills" then "wasting his brain cells drinking his summers away at the Jersey Shore" shouldn't be held against him, Leventhal argued.

Ultimately, however, the court didn't rule on either the plaintiff attorneys' motion or Leventhal's efforts to make their pleading disappear. Like most cases, this lawsuit was resolved not with a judge's ruling or a jury's decision, but with an out-of-court settlement for $1.2 million.

That's a lot of money, even if you saw it in half.

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