Rock music is back in the courtroom--on death charges.
Six weeks after the British rock group Judas Priest was absolved of causing the suicide-related deaths of two Sparks, Nev., youths, fellow British rocker Ozzy Osbourne faces similar charges in Macon, Ga.
In two separate product-liability cases that are being considered jointly in a deposition session this week in a Macon federal court, subliminal messages allegedly hidden in Osbourne albums are blamed for the suicide shootings of Michael Waller, 16, and Harold Hamilton, 17.
In one case, Thomas Waller, a 48-year-old Fitzgerald, Ga., church deacon and shoe repairman, claims his son killed himself on May 3, 1986, after hearing a 1980 recording of the song "Suicide Solution" on the album "Blizzard of Oz." Waller is seeking $1 million for pain and suffering, $3 million for wrongful death and $5 million in punitive damages.
Hattie Hamilton, a 43-year-old homemaker from Charleston, S.C., also alleges that her son took his own life on March 20, 1988, after hearing the same song on a 1987 live album, titled "Tribute." She is asking for identical damages.
Other defendants named in the lawsuits include CBS Records, Jet Records, Essex Music International publishers and Osbourne's co-writers, Randy Rhodes and Bob Daisley.
Product-liability lawsuits based on malicious subliminal messages were first given the green light a year ago when a Reno judge presiding over the Judas Priest case ruled that subliminal messages are not protected by the First Amendment. While the judge absolved Judas Priest of responsibility last August, he left the door open on the question of subliminals.
As a result, subliminal cases are now being considered in Edison, N.J., Provoh, Utah, Livonia, Mich., Portland, Ore. and Seattle.
Victoria Gehman Evans, a sound analyst who testified last August as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Judas Priest subliminal trial, is scheduled to stage an audio demonstration on behalf of the plaintiffs in court in Macon today.
"There is absolutely no confusion about what the subliminal message in this song suggests," Evans, a University of Nevada lecturer who holds masters degrees in physics and computer science, said in a phone interview from Reno before leaving for Macon. "It suggests suicide. The tapes have been doctored and the intent is clear."
Ben Mills, a Fitzgerald attorney, represents both parents and is attempting to consolidate the cases.
"Our cases are very strong," Mills said. "We've got a song named 'Suicide Solution' with a subliminal message reinforcing depressing self-destructive lyrics. This kind of message is not protected by the First Amendment."
Osbourne, however, blasted the lawsuit this week in a phone interview from a recording studio in Bearsville, N.Y.
"I'm bored to death myself with it all," Osbourne told The Times. "If I hear about one more case, I'm going to join them."
Osbourne was referring to a 1986 case in which the parents of a 19-year-old Indio, Calif., youth named John McCollum--who killed himself after drinking and listening to "Blizzard of Oz"--sued Osborne and CBS.
McCollum's parents claimed that masked satanic lyrics pushed the youth "over the brink of depression to suicide." A California appeals court dismissed the suit on July 12, 1988, ruling that Osbourne's music was protected by the First Amendment.
Howard Weitzman, the Los Angeles attorney who has represented Osbourne in all three of the cases, branded as "ludicrous" the new lawsuits.
"I think what you have here is parents who are grieving and feeling somewhat guilty at the turn of events that their sons' lives took," Weitzman said. "You couple that with lawyers who are telling them that Ozzy Osbourne is a deep-pocket target and then you end up with a lawsuit like this."
However, Waller's father denied being motivated by greed.
"I did not get into this for the money," he told The Times this week in a telephone interview. "I got into this to put a stop to the irresponsibility. The only way we can make the record industry realize that parents mean business is to hit them where it hurts--in the pocketbook."
In today's closed-door deposition session, two sound analysts for the plaintiffs are scheduled to present evidence that they maintain proves that audio subliminal messages exist on the Osbourne recordings. Judge Durosse Fitzpatrick, who is presiding over the matter, is expected to attend the depositions as a spectator.
If the plaintiff's expert witnesses can provide enough evidence that covert messages do indeed exist on the Osbourne song, Mills said that he believes the judge may allow him to plead the parents case before a jury.