The Judas Priest Trial: 15 Years Later
Band Photo: Judas Priest (?)
Lenita Powers of the Reno Gazette-Journal has issued the following report:
Fifteen years ago, Reno became the focus of a high-profile lawsuit that charged the British heavy metal group JUDAS PRIEST with hiding subliminal messages in its music that led to the deaths of two fans.
As JUDAS PRIEST returns to perform tonight in Reno, those who took part in a courtroom drama that became the focus of international attention recalled the complex case that still generates calls from law students.
Other lawsuits at that time sought damages because of violent lyrics in music, but the JUDAS PRIEST case was one of the first to claim that subliminal messages hidden behind those lyrics caused the deaths of two young men.
"It was the first time there had been a judicial determination of whether subliminal messages were or were not protected speech under the First Amendment," former Washoe District Judge Jerry Whitehead said this week.
Whitehead, who heard the case after the lawyers agreed not to have the civil suit decided by a jury, ruled it was not.
"Because speech is basically the expression of thoughts and ideas that a person can reflect upon and accept or reject, but a subliminal message is a surreptitious attempt to influence the subconscious and, therefore, is not something you could reflect upon and accept or reject," he said.
His final decision: There was no conclusive evidence of subliminal messages, Whitehead dismissed the case against JUDAS PRIEST and its record company, CBS, in 1990.
The gruesome incident that gave rise to the case took place five years before the trial.
On Dec. 23, 1985, after an afternoon spent drinking beer, smoking marijuana and allegedly listening to music by JUDAS PRIEST for several hours, Raymond Belknap, 18, and his friend, James Vance, 20, went to a church playground in Sparks. There, Belknap put a 12-gauge shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger, dying instantly. Vance tried to follow suit but, possibly because the weapon was slippery with blood, the shot blew away the lower half of his face. He survived, his face severely deformed.
Vance underwent more than 140 hours of surgery and lived in constant pain. Three years later, he slipped into a coma and died before the trial began, but not before he gave his version of what happened the day he and Belknap made their suicide pact.
"It was like a self-destruct that went off," he told a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter. "We had been programmed. I knew I was going to do it. I was afraid. I didn't want to die. It was just as if I had no choice."
At the time of his death, Vance left a 1-year-old daughter.
Members of Vance and Belknap's families could not be reached for comment this week.
At the heart of the lawsuit filed against the band was the claim that their "Stained Class" album's songs contained messages that, when played backwards, said "try suicide" and "let's be dead." Lawyers said it was the song "Better By You, Better Than Me" with its subliminal command of "do it, do it, do it" that pushed the two men over the line to end their troubled lives.
Lawyers on both sides trotted out audio experts who supported or debunked the existence of hidden messages in the songs.
Testifying for the defense was Anthony Pellicano, who previously analyzed the infamous 18-minute gap on President Richard Nixon's secret tapes of conversations in the White House. The private investigator to Hollywood stars and their lawyers more recently became the subject of an FBI probe for using illegal wiretaps and also was sentenced in 2003 to 30 months in federal prison for the illegally possessing hand grenades and the plastic explosive C-4.
"Our expert reverse-engineered the songs and said they were packed with subliminals in the lyrics," said Timothy Post, who represented Vance's estate. "(The defense) had Anthony Pellicano, who came in with his $2,000 suit and Italian loafers and he said, ‘No, that's just breath exhalation that sounds like the words do it,' and Whitehead bought it."
Post said he often heard people complain that it was ridiculous to blame JUDAS PRIEST and CBS for Belknap and Vance's decision to kill themselves.
"We weren't saying the band was some kind of Svengali who hypnotized them into doing this, but these two boys were in the suicide zone," Post said. "We never said they were Presbyterian Sunday school teachers, but they were up on the bridge teetering and JUDAS PRIEST said 'jump.' This was a product liability case, and they were putting hidden poison in their product."
Suellen Fulstone, the Reno lawyer who represented JUDAS PRIEST and CBS, said Belknap and Vance clearly were troubled young men, and it was the group's music that resulted in their deaths.
"I remember one of the terms I learned in the course of trying this case was the term 'dysfunctional family,'" she said.
The band, according to Fulstone, "felt bad for the family, but didn't feel they were in any way responsible for what happened."
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