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July 2014 - Shock Therapy

by Richard W. Millar, Jr.

In my boyhood, before the turn of the current century, there was a magic store in Pasadena called, as I recall, The Magic Wand. For about six months, a lifetime in kid time, I was a budding magician. Wearing a temporarily borrowed sport coat from my father which, since it was about eighteen sizes too large, ruled out sleight of hand tricks, I would mystify and amaze my parents with balls under cups, balls passing through plastic urns, and various and sundry other tricks. At least they appeared properly amazed by my junior prestidigitation, but now, viewed through the prism of years, I realize they never asked how I did any of the tricks.

But The Magic Wand did not only sell magic tricks, it also sold an endless variety of what I guess you would call “gag gifts.” I was, at least for a time, one of its best customers. One purchase I clearly remember was a “joy buzzer.” You would slip it on a finger so that the outside would look like a ring (although thinking back on it, I don’t remember aluminum rings ever being in vogue) and clasp the rest of the device in your right palm. Then when you shook hands with someone it would give them a mild shock and give off a buzzing sound. From the point of view of the trickster, the joy buzzer had a relatively short shelf life, as it were, as word quickly spread and you ran out of receptive hands fairly quickly. I don’t remember the marketing name for another of my favorites, but I deliciously recall its results. There were two parts. One was a tablet of color dye and the other was a small spring. The idea was to put the tablet in the middle of the spring and then push the spring up the spout of a water faucet, preferably over the sink in your parents’ master bathroom. When the water was turned on (hot or cold, it didn’t matter) it would pass through the tablet in the spring so that the water leaving the spout would be the color of the dye.

Red, I found, worked exceptionally well. I remember my mother screaming that blood was coming out of her faucet.

Then there was the “cigarette load.” These came in packages with enough “loads” so you could practice getting the placement just right. Each load looked sort of like about a quarter inch of a toothpick and you would have to insert it far enough that it didn’t blow up upon lighting but not so far that it would blow up next to someone’s lips. Regular cigarettes posed a difficult challenge because you never knew which end someone would put in their mouth and which end they would light.

My mother smoked Chesterfields, and indeed modeled for them in magazine ads, and partly for that reason, and partly because she had no discernable sense of humor, she was never a target. On the other hand, my father had a great sense of humor and smoked Parliaments which, as some of you may remember, had a big long filter on one end, conveniently eliminating the guesswork of which end to insert the load. (Actually, he didn’t really smoke them. He would light them, put them in his mouth, and let the ash accumulate until it fell off. I never understood the thought behind that process, but I digress.) In any event, I attacked one of his boxes (Parliaments came in a box, not a soft pack) loading every other one for maximum chance. It turns out, he picked one while in the middle of a Board of Director’s meeting of Northrup Aircraft, as it was then called, when it exploded nicely, leaving little shreds of paper hanging from the filter still tight in his lips. Somehow he knew immediately what had been done and who had done it and said so at the meeting. He told me later that evening that everyone cracked up and it was the highlight of an otherwise dull meeting. Of course, after that, he always checked the ends of his cigarettes for signs of tampering.

Eventually I aged out, if you will, of a career as a prankster, opting, as you know, for the legal field. It never occurred to me that some of these gags might be useful in cross-examination.

That is, of course, until now. As always, a case in point.

An expert was testifying in Utah in a case which involved the shocking of dairy cattle from stray current in the ground near a Utah power plant. Testifying for the defense, the expert opined that 1.5 volts, a power equivalent to an AAA battery, could not even be felt by a human.

That testimony was a challenge that could not go unrebutted, particularly when the cross-examiner happened to have “an electronic device disguised as a retractable pen.”

“Sir, in this pen I put an AAA battery. The circuit will be completed when you press the back of the pen. Go ahead and push the back of the pen and tell the jury whether you feel it or not.”

The expert “complied ... and received a strong electric shock which caused his body to jerk and to drop the pen.”

Although the cross-examiner’s co-counsel said the pen was a “children’s toy, a gag pen,” the trial judge was not amused. He charged the lawyer $3,000 and precluded him from cross-examining any expert witnesses in the next trial as a sanction for, and I swear I am not making this up:

Battery of a Witness.”

Richard W. Millar, Jr. is a member of the firm of Millar, Hodges & Bemis in Newport Beach. He can be reached at millar@mhblaw.net.

 
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