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Judas Priest Trial

This article explores the issue of a specific trial-the Judas Priest trial that unfolded in Reno, Nevada, in the summer of 1990. Two teenage boys, James Vance and Ray Belknap, had attempted suicide. At the time of the shootings, Belknap died instantly. Vance was severely injured but he lived, only to die of drug complications three years later. The plaintiffs (the boys' parents) alleged that subliminal messages hidden in the heavy metal rock music that Vance and Belknap listened to contributed to their suicidal impulse. This trial is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the trial established a legal precedent that has already influenced the ruling in a similar subsequent suit. Second, it provides a good forum for illustrating some important and often misunderstood aspects of subliminal perception. Judas Priest was a British heavy metal rock band-one of the first of that genre. Their popularity peaked in the mid-70s. The album in question (Stained Class) was produced in 1978; the shootings took place in December 1985. It was alleged that a particular subliminal phrase in one of their songs ("Better by You Better Than Me") on the album triggered a suicidal impulse. The phrase at issue was "Do It." In isolation, this phrase has little meaning unless there is some antecedent to which the "It" refers. Moreover, the antecedent could not have been anything that was audible on the record (or visible on the album cover), because such material would have been protected by the First Amendment. Consequently the plaintiffs were in the difficult position of having to acknowledge that the boys were suicidal to begin with, and that the subliminal phrase "Do It" triggered the already existing disposition