Death of a Target Girl
The prosecutor stared down at the defendant, steely eyed, for a long moment. The defendant, Dan Rosinsky, fidgeted in his seat, but never blinked as he stared back at Robert Jackson, the prosecutor in a Marin County courtroom. Finally, he answered in a firm voice, “No, I did not plan to kill Jane Orman that night at our knife throwing performance. It was a freak accident, something that can always happen despite our best preparation. The act was real. Everything happens just as it looks — no optical illusions, fake knives, or sleight of hand. Naturally there are some risks with this kind of act.”
The trial began earlier in the day. Dan was charged with second degree murder of the woman who is known in the industry as a “target girl.” A target girl is a female assistant in “impalement” acts such as knife throwing. Jane would stand in front of a target board while Dan threw knives that would hit the board and just miss Jane, often by a fraction of an inch. They had been doing this act for 8 years, having met through an industry publication classified ad. It wasn’t long, however, before they became a couple. Most knife throwers and assistants in the business were either married couples or in some sort of romantic relationship. The relationship between them must be close and intense which usually leads to romantic or erotic feelings. Plus, a high degree of trust between them is required, which is difficult to develop if they are merely coworkers. Target girls often wear revealing costumes, thus adding an element of eroticism to the act. It’s true that magicians’ assistants wear similarly revealing costumes, but there is a distinct difference between the two types of acts. Any apparent danger to an assistant in a magic act is mostly an illusion, whereas impalement acts are demonstrations of nerve and calculated risk, and the danger is real.
The first witness called in the case that morning was Katherine Morton, a middle-aged woman who served as Dan’s secretary and travel organizer. She revealed that Jane had caught Dan cheating on her with a woman he had met at one of their shows. There was a loud argument the day that Jane died; Katherine could hear it all outside of the closed door of their bedroom at the hotel where they were performing that night. Jane was threatening to leave the act after they got paid for the show that night and was going to go to the police to charge him with assault. “I’ll kill you first!” Dan replied and there was the sound of something hitting flesh followed by a thud. Katherine sneaked out of the room at this point, and when she returned later that night, she noticed a red welt under Jane’s left eye. She had tried to cover it up with makeup; it was good enough to hide it from the audience at the show, but was obvious from a few feet away.
Katherine was followed on the witness stand by Ron Abramowitz who was the expert witness on knife throwing. He was a well-respected insider, now retired from performing, but still actively training aspiring performers seeking to learn the craft. While he acknowledged the inherent risks of the act, he testified that a professional with Dan’s many years of experience would be extremely unlikely to make a throw as inaccurately as the one he made that night. On the extremely rare occasion when a throw would be off, it would barely nick the target girl and cause no serious harm. There is no reasonable explanation for how a throw could be so far off that it would hit the target girl in the middle of the neck and sever the carotid artery. That is the one place you would aim for if you wanted to kill someone with a thrown knife.
During a break in the trial, Dan was visibly sweating as he conferred with his lawyer, Bill Tuner. The trial was obviously not going well, and he faced up to 20 years on the charge. “Bill, I think I have to take the stand in my defense,” Dan said with a quivering voice. “No, no, no!” Bill screamed back at him. “I told you a million times that it’s always a bad idea for a defendant to testify at a criminal trial. The prosecution has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This prosecutor is a killer. He’ll carve you up on the witness stand and serve you to the jury on a silver platter. As your lawyer, I command you not to do it.” “You work for me. I do not work for you,” Dan replied. “If you won’t go along with it, I’ll just fire you and hire a new lawyer, or represent myself. The Judge will let me do that.” “Why Dan?” Bill pleaded. “Because I can see the way this trial is going,” Dan said. “I can see it in the eyes and body language of the jurors. They lapped up every word Katherine said. They love juicy scandals like this. They think they are in some kind of soap opera. Ron’s testimony is even more damning. The prosecution introduced him as the world’s leading expert in knife throwing. He is that, but he never met me and doesn’t know what was in my heart or my state of mind that night. The jury needs to see that I’m not some sort of monster. Yes, I made a mistake and cheated, but I truly loved Jane and I’m heartbroken over her death. The jury needs to hear me express remorse or they will think I’m some kind of cold-blooded monster.” “OK, I see your point, but I’ll allow it under only one circumstance,” Bill replied. “I will ask you if you intentionally threw that knife at Jane to harm her, and you calmly say that you did not. You can express remorse through your facial expression and tears, but don’t say anything more than that. OK? No details or any explanation beyond that. The same thing when the prosecutor interrogates you. Just repeat that it was an accident and you feel very sorry about it. If you say anything else, the prosecutor will twist your words and hang you. He’s very good at that. Got it?” Dan silently nodded and the two of them returned to the courtroom.
Bill rose and told the Judge, “Your honor. I call Dan Rosinsky to the witness stand.” There was an audible murmur that went through the jurors. The judge had a surprised look on his face as he nodded in consent. Dan took the oath and sat in the witness stand as Bill paced back and forth in front of him. Finally, Bill stopped, looked straight at Dan’s eyes, and asked, “Did you intentionally throw that knife at Jane in attempt to hurt her on that night in question?” Bill’s face looked increasing nervous as Dan stared straight ahead and did not immediately answer. After what seemed like an unreasonably long pause, the judge turned to Dan and said, “The witness will answer the question.” Dan had turned his head to look at the judge and turned back to Bill. Finally, he said “I’m not really sure.” Bill had a pained, exasperated expression on his face. “What do you mean you are not sure?” Bill snapped, trying desperately to hide his rage. “Well, I mean I didn’t consciously try to hurt her. I’m a professional and I try not to let my emotions affect me. But it’s hard to do that sometimes. I know I had no plan to miss that throw, but I can’t say that some subconscious thoughts didn’t affect my performance. You know, I wanted to cancel that performance because of my state of mind, but Jane insisted the show must go on. We are professionals and that’s what we do. Plus, Jane said she really needed the money as she had a lot of expenses. I wish we had just cancelled that show.”
During his summation the prosecutor stressed the improbability of this being an accident and the strong motive to commit the murder. What better way to do it than during a show where he can use the danger of the act as a cover? There had been target girls injured during such acts, but the injuries were minor and usually happened with amateurs, not with a seasoned professional like Dan. Bill’s summary stressed that accidents were possible and that the prosecution didn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Besides, there were no reports of domestic violence with Dan and Jane, and none in his previous relationships. The jury went to the deliberation room, and there was nothing left but the nail-biting anticipation.
When Dan and Bill were finally alone together, Bill lit into Dan. “What the hell were you thinking on the stand? You know what that hesitation means to the jury? Guilty, guilty, guilty!” he screamed. You may as well start trying on prison uniforms. We have no chance now. The jury will be back with their guilty verdict in a few minutes. Thanks to you, this is an open and shut case.” Dan slumped in his chair and covered the sides of his face with his hands. “I just had to tell the truth,” Dan replied. “I felt the jury needed to hear honesty. I just laid my feelings out there. There was no intent and therefore no crime. But I just couldn’t say my emotional state didn’t affect my performance. That just wouldn’t be true. Part of me thinks there may have been something subconscious going on. I didn’t have my usual confidence when I started the act. You need nerves of steel to do what I do. Without the confidence and nerve, your performance can suffer. Why the hell wouldn’t she let me cancel the performance? That’s the only thing I blame myself for, besides the cheating part. I shouldn’t have listened to her and just told the hotel that I was too sick to do the act that day. We could have made it up another time.”
Bill’s prediction did not come true as the jury deliberations were dragging on through the afternoon. Evidently it wasn’t the open and shut case that he predicted. Finally, into the third hour, the jurors shuffled back into the courtroom. Bill looked straight down at the floor with a look of resignation on his face. His reputation as a lawyer would suffer if he lost as he fully expected. The fact that his client disobeyed him would not be taken into account as it should. Private conversations between a lawyer and his client are not noted anywhere in the court record. “Has the jury reached a verdict?” the judge asked the jury foreman. “Yes, we have your honor,” the foreman replied. “How do you find the defendant, Dan Rosinsky, on the charge of murder in the second degree?” asked the judge. “Not guilty,” replied the foreman.