Expert: Subliminal messages cannot prompt suicide

By CY RYAN  |  July 23, 1990
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RENO, Nev. -- Subliminal messages allegedly inserted into an album recorded by the heavy-metal rock group Judas Priest could not have triggered the suicide of two young men, a behavioral expert testified Monday.

'Suicide is not a decision made by the subconscious mind,' the portion of the mind that is targeted by subliminal messages, Dr. Donald Lunde testified in U.S. District Court in the trial of a lawsuit against the group.

Judas Priest and CBS Records are accused of causing the 1985suicide of Raymond Belknap and James Vance, who shot themselves with a shotgun after drinking beer, smoking marijuana and listening to the group's 'Stained Class' album for several hours.

Lunde, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who was hired by the defense as an expert witness, said his research shows that emotional crises 'tipped the balance' and prompted Belknap, 18, and Vance, 20, to shoot themselves.

Belknap died instantly and Vance died three years later of complications from wounds that blew away his face.

The parents of the two young men argue that the words 'Do it, do it,' masked under a drum beat on the album, invaded the subconscious of the young men and led to their suicide pact. They also contend that the record played backwards includes such sayings as 'F--- the Lord.'

Judas Priest and CBS Records both deny there were any hidden messages on the record.

A verdict for the parents could force record companies to screen lyrics or face the possibility of having to pay huge punitive damages in similar cases.

There have been at least three previous cases -- in California, Georgia and New Jersey -- in which suicides have been blamed on the album 'Suicide Solution' by the rock singer Ozzy Ozbourne, another performer who has recorded for CBS.

The California case was dismissed when a court ruled that song lyrics were protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. The Georgia case is still pending, and heavy metal is no longer a factor in the New Jersey case.

In the Judas Priest case, U.S. District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead has ruled that subliminal messages are not a form of speech and therefore are not covered by First Amendment protections. But he has not ruled whether the Judas Priest album contains such material.

Vivian Lynch, a lawyer for Vance's parents, said outside court that Lunde's testimony does not mean anything since he is not an expert in subliminal messages. The plaintiffs' lawyers will put their expert witness, Dr. Howard Shevrin, on the stand later this week.

Lunde, under cross-examination by Lynch, conceded there is much psychiatrists do not know about the mind and how it functions. But he said it was impossible for the subconscious to decipher a message played backwards on a record or a masked sound.

'A low sound will not be heard and will not affect behavior,' Lunde said.

Lunde said his research shows that Belknap had lost his job and Vance had a confrontation with his mother shortly before they shot themselves. Those were the emotional crisises that triggered the suicide, he testified.

Lunde said the 'fatal combination was they seemed to encourage each other' into suicide, rather than trying to talk each other out of it. He said that was the 'unusual thing' about this case.

The two men, he said, were high risks for suicide because of difficulties in school and with the law, problems with their parents and their use of alcohol and drugs.

Lunde said there were no studies that showed subliminal audio messages could change a person's behavior. There has been research, he said, on subliminal messages flashed on the screens of movies or television.

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