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The Music Didn't Make Them Do It : Verdict: The rock band Judas Priest is absolved of planting subliminal messages on a record that families charged led to the deaths of two youths.

August 25, 1990|CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two young men did not kill themselves because they heard alleged subliminal messages in the heavy metal music of Judas Priest, a judge in Reno, Nev., ruled on Friday.

Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford called the ruling a victory for rock 'n' roll.

"It's a great day for Judas Priest. It's a great day for heavy metal and artistic expression," Halford said in a telephone interview from Mexico, where he is vacationing. "Still, my main worry is that it seems as if the judge may have left the door open on subliminal messages."

Lawyers representing the families of two Sparks, Nev., youths in the product-liability suit claimed a subliminal command saying "Do it" and backward messages promoting self-destruction concealed in Judas Priest's 1978 album "Stained Class" caused Raymond Belknap, 18, and James Vance, 20, to attempt suicide. Belknap died instantly, Vance three years later.

In a 93-page decision, Washoe District Judge Jerry Whitehead said he could hear the subliminal commands, but that the words "Do it" were the result of a chance combination of the singer's exhalation of breath and a "Leslie" guitar sound. He also ruled that the families of the two young men failed to prove that such messages were a precipitating factor in the shootings.

Judas Priest and CBS Records, the band's record company, denied using subliminal messages.

In his conclusion, Whitehead specified that the defendants could not claim victory, as they failed to prove that subliminal stimuli have no effect on human behavior.

"Rather," Whitehead wrote, "plaintiffs lost this case because they failed to prove that the defendants intentionally placed subliminal messages on the album and that those messages were a cause of the suicide and attempted suicide involved in this case. However, it is unknown what future information, research and technology will bring to this field."

The ruling, which attorneys for the families say they will probably not appeal, leaves open the door on a broad new category of product-liability lawsuits, according to one of the attorneys in the case. Kenneth McKenna, who represented one of the mothers of the dead youths, said he already has several similar cases on tap in other states.

"I believe this is an excellent decision because it should promote people to pursue more of these cases in the future," McKenna said. "Sooner or later, science is going to catch up with reality and we'll be able to prove these cases in a courtroom."

While the judge ruled in favor of the band and CBS Records, in an 18-page collateral order that was part of the ruling he imposed a $40,000 "sanction" against the record company, saying it had refused to comply with court orders directing it to supply certain materials needed to decide the case.

Gail Edwin, vice president and litigation counsel for CBS Records, said the company complied with every court order and was reviewing the Friday order to determine how to proceed.

Belknap's mother, Aunetta Roberson, said she was pleased that the judge found that the subliminal messages existed.

"I hope this case will cause other mothers to begin paying attention to what their kids are listening to," she said.

Vance's mother, Phyllis Vance, said she is writing a book about the incident and intends to continue counseling families who have encountered problems allegedly due to heavy metal music.

"I have to accept what the judge said," Vance said. "I was never in it for the money. My intention was to get the word out about heavy metal, and I plan to continue helping kids hurt by this music."

The unprecedented case, which sparked international attention, stemmed from the Dec. 23, 1985, suicide attempts of Belknap and Vance.

After an afternoon of beer drinking, pot smoking and listening to Judas Priest music, the two youths demolished Belknap's bedroom, grabbed a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun and jumped out the window .

According to an account by Vance, Belknap dashed to the playground of a local church, sat down on a merry-go-round, jammed the muzzle of the weapon under his chin and pulled the trigger. Vance followed suit.

Belknap died on the spot. Vance's self-inflicted blast tore away his nose, cheeks, jaw, tongue, teeth and gums. Horribly disfigured, he survived three years of excruciating plastic surgery before lapsing into an unexplained coma. He died in November, 1989.

In December 1985, Vance implied that the suicide attempts were a result of depression. He never mentioned Judas Priest's music, according to police reports. Vance told authorities that he shot himself out of panic, fearing that he would be blamed for his friend's shooting and might subsequently face arrest and prosecution, according to the reports.

But in March 1986, Vance changed his story, according to police reports. He introduced the concept of a suicide pact and suggested that he believed a volatile combination of drugs, alcohol and Judas Priest music led the two to shoot themselves.

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