RENO, NEV., JULY 16 -- Two young men who shot themselves in a deserted playground five years ago were influenced by subliminal messages to "do it, do it" in an album by the British rock band Judas Priest, a lawyer charged today as a suit against the band and CBS Records went to court here.
"What this case is is about making money," Vivian Lynch said in her opening statement. "Excitement is what the defendants were selling," she said. "Excitement is what the consumers were buying."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. Relatives of the victims claim hidden messages in the album "Stained Class" spurred the two men to form a suicide pact. The band members strongly deny any such messages exist.
On the afternoon of Dec. 23, 1985, Raymond Belknap, 18, held a sawed-off shotgun to his chin and died instantly from a single blast. James Vance, 20, managed only to blow away the lower portion of his face. The two had been listening to the album repeatedly while drinking beer and smoking marijuana, their relatives said.
Though he survived the shooting, Vance underwent repeated operations and eventually died three years later of complications from his injuries and a reaction to medication.
Lynch, who represents Vance's family, told the court the audience targeted by the band was itself a "stained class" that craved excitement and that the band touted Satanism, sexual aggression, violence, suicide and death. "This case is about mind control," she said. "In this case, what pushed the boys over the edge into eternity was the subliminal push."
Lawyers for Judas Priest and CBS Records will argue it was the young men's troubled lives, including a history of drug and alcohol abuse, psychiatric disorders and physical abuse, that pushed them over the edge. They deny that the band promotes suicide or Satanism.
Washoe District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead is presiding over the non-jury trial. He already has denied a defense motion to dismiss the case on grounds the Judas Priest album is protected by the First Amendment.
Whitehead said freedom-of-speech protections would not apply to subliminal messages. He said he was not convinced the hidden messages actually existed on the album, but left the argument to attorneys. The lawsuit is proceeding as a products liability case, with the band and record company accused of negligence and intentional and reckless misconduct.
In one of the album's songs, "Beyond the Realms of Death," the band sings: "Yeah, I have left the world behind. I am safe now in my mind. I'm free to speak with my own mind. This is my life, this is my life, and I'll decide, not you."
But the trial will focus not on what the lyrics may have suggested, but whether there was a second, all-but-inaudible set of lyrics in the background.
"I don't believe that we'd have had the support and following that we've had for the past 17 years had we deliberately attempted to contrive to create songs where people did harm to themselves," lead singer Robert Halford said in a 1988 deposition. Band members will attend the trial, but attorneys said they have been unable to locate the original, multitrack recording of the album that could have made it easier to determine whether there were subliminal messages.
Attorneys for the families do not dispute that the two young men were troubled. But they argue in court filings that because of their faults, the two were "susceptible, influenced and vulnerable to the ideas, suggestions and emotions" allegedly hidden in the music.
Voluminous court documents paint the youths' lives as troublesome from early adolescence.
In 1978, a school psychologist from Livermore Valley Unified School District in California visited Vance's mother, Phyllis Vance, to discuss concerns about his behavior. The psychologist's report concluded that a "high possibility existed for James to respond violently to stressful situations and that this probability might increase as James is subjected to the additional stresses of adolescence." Vance was in the fifth grade at the time.
Both he and Belknap dropped out of school in the 10th grade. Records indicate they drifted among menial jobs, had several brushes with the law, carried guns and dreamed of becoming mercenaries.
In 1984 Vance allegedly made phone calls threatening to kill the mother and younger sister of his former girlfriend. And a week before his suicide, a complaint was filed against Belknap, charging him with animal torture for shooting a neighbor's cat with darts from a blowgun.