In August 1990, a judge ruled that JUDAS PRIEST was not liable for the deaths of two young men who cited the band’s music as the reason they killed themselves.
Just before Christmas, 1985, 19-year-old James Vance watched his best friend Ray Belknap shoot himself to death with a .12 gauge shotgun in a churchyard outside Reno, Nevada. Then Vance pulled the trigger on himself. He survived but was severely disfigured. Vance later claimed his actions had been influenced by the heavy metal music of JUDAS PRIEST, prompting his family to sue the band.
At the heart of the lawsuit was the claim that JUDAS PRIEST‘s “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.
Vance told attorneys that he and Belknap were listening to JUDAS PRIEST when “all of a sudden we got a suicide message, and we got tired of life.” In a letter to Belknap‘s mother, he later wrote, “I believe that alcohol and heavy-metal music such as JUDAS PRIEST led us to be mesmerized.”
“JUDAS PRIEST and CBS pander this stuff to alienated teenagers,” the Belknaps‘ attorney argued. “The members of the chess club, the math and science majors don’t listen to this stuff. It’s the dropouts, the drug and alcohol abusers. So our argument is you have a duty to be more cautious when you’re dealing with a population susceptible to this stuff.”
Halford looked back on the Reno trial while promoting his recently released autobiography, “Confess”, in an interview with U.K.’s Metro.
Asked why JUDAS PRIEST was accused of brainwashing its fans to kill themselves, Rob replied: “I still don’t know to this day. We were targeted. Two boys had committed suicide in Reno and a group of people, backed by people who were against heavy metal music, said we were writing songs that if listened to in a certain way made you kill yourself. It was insane. Ozzy Osbourne went through it with his song ‘Suicide Solution’ and then it was our turn. We went to court in America and dealt with it.”
Asked how he and his bandmates debunked the existence of hidden messages in their songs, Rob said: “The prosecution said if you played heavy metal albums backwards you’d get devil-worshipping messages. I said to the guys, ‘Let’s prove them wrong.’ We got some Frank Sinatra albums, played them backwards in the hotel, and these unusual messages started appearing. One was, ‘I gave her a peppermint.’ It was ludicrous. I played them to the judge, who was a very conservative Mormon, and when he listened, he physically moved — he was surprised. It was a remarkable episode.”
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 young men.