Page 12 -The Michigan Daily-Friday, September 11, 1987
Biafra trial has mixed results
By Beth Fertig
After a widely publicized trial and
-a year and a half of hearings,
.speeches, and televised debate, the
Dead Kennedys/Frankenchrist case
phas finally come to a suitably
ridiculous end. Last month, a hung
jury and a denial of retrial left lead
singer/songwriter Jello Biafra with
an apparent victory - a victory with
a very sour taste.
_ The case in question, as you will
recall, involved Biafra as co-
-defendant in charge for distributing
4"harmful material to minors." The
f'material was in the form of a
;suggestive (phallic) poster by scenic
cartist H.R. Giger which was
enclosed in the band's 1985 LP,
;Frankenchrist. When California
,omom Mary Sierra saw her child's
7copy of the Kennedys' album, she
,.sent a letter of outrage to the Los
"Angeles Attorney General's office
complaining about the enclosed
artwork. The letter and poster then
made their way to Deputy City
-#Attorney Michael Guarino, who felt
5that the poster was clearly criminal
r under the state's penal code 313.1-
the one which prohibits the
distribution of hardcore material to
those under 18. In Jello's own
words, "California Uber Alles."
By 1986 Jello Biafra, the punk
rock outsider whose caustic lyrics
were always an attack on American
values, was a mini-celebrity. To
many he became a symbol of the
First Amendment, protector of the
American dream. Biafra did TV; he
appeared on The Oprah Winfrey
Show with SPIN Magazine Editor
Bob Guccione, Jr. and P M R C
founder Tipper Gore. And he became
a regular at music seminars and did
the spoken word route at college
campuses. Jello Biafra was a cause.
The ACLU initiated a demurrer
on the Dead Kennedys' behalf,
contesting the constitutionality of
the charges against the band.
Meanwhile the Kennedys released
one more album, Bedtime F o r
Democracy, before calling it quits
because of the intense pressure they
were under. Their record label,
Alternative Tentacles, came close to
folding. In addition to Biafra, charges
were filed against four other
defendants for the distribution of the
poster, including the record label, the
pressing company, and record
distributors. Surprisingly enough,
no charges were filed against the
stores where the album was carried;
Wherehouse, the chain store where
Sierra's child purchased the record,
voluntarily ceased to carry the LP.
So did other chains.
The case made it to an appeals
court last month with Biafra
pleading not guilty to the criminal
charges. He argued that the poster,
like the songs on the album,
represented the dehumanization and
sexual exploitation of our society.
At his side were expert witnesses:
rock critic Griel Marcus, B A M
Publisher Dennis Erokan, and an art
critic from the University of
Pittsburgh. Charges were dropped
against the other defendants, leaving
Biafra and Alternative Tentacles
general manager Michael Bannano
alone to take the heat. Mary Sierra,
who had prior to the trial been
completely unheard from (many were
even skeptical of her existence)
showed up on the first day to confess
that she didn't mean things to go so
far. But when the jury met, their
vote was seven to five; no decision.
Prosecutor Guarino pleaded for a
retrial, but the judge declined, stating
that she didn't want her courtroom to
be a forum for "trial and error."
Guarino views the trial as a
success on one level. The fact that
the case even reached the appellate
level is proof to him that it was
worthy of such scrutiny and proves
the vitality of the "hardcore" statute.
"That's very helpful," he says. "It
means we can use the statute again
should a similar case occur."
Guarino also says that he is sure the
jury's decision would have been in
his favor had they been given only
the poster to judge, and not the lyric
sheet that went with it. "The poster
was gratuitous," he states, "had the
judge not invited the jury to view
the poster in conjunction with the
lyrics, there would have been a;
conviction." In Guarino's eyes,
Biafra's lyrics were under the
protection of the First Amendment;
the explicit poster was not.
Biafra and his associates estimate
that they will have spent $60,000 on
this case. With over $45,000
collected in donations (including
$1000 apiece from Frank Zappa and
Steve Van Zandt), they're hoping to
break even. For them, not being
convicted and the refusal of retrial
represents a victory. However, it's a
rather weak one at that.
The climate that initiated the
whole fuss has clearly not gone
away, as the power of groups like
the PMRC, Teen Vision, and the
Brothers illustrates. Last month's
jury never actually reached a verdict
of innocence. If anything, the
confusion was just indicative of the
stupidity of the whole case, and how
difficult it is to draw the line of
obscenity. Of course the First
Amendment is worth fighting over
at any cost (even the estimated
$50,000 that California paid in court
fees and salaries for staging the
whole trial). But what's ridiculous is
how out of control the whole case
became. Like the PMRC Senate
hearings, it probably ended up
generating more interest in
pornography and "explicit" records
than ever before.
Presently, a new album by SST
recording artists Leaving Trains is
picking up the flag Biafra put down
last month. The album is called
Fuck, and when magazines refused to
print ads for it SST set out to launch
one of their hugest publicity drives
ever: whoever sets up the largest
display for the album, anywhere in
their community, will win a free
round-trip plane ticket to see the
band play in Florida.
Mary Sierra, as she herself has
admitted, got a lot more than she
bargained for when she wrote to her
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Many Hands and Feet
The University's Gay Delanghe is one of eight choreographers who will
be performing in 'September Dances' tonight through Sunday at the Per-
formance Network. Showtime is 8 p.m. Sunday. For more information
call the Network at 663-0681 or 996-4759.
IF YOU ORDERED
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Bring some form of ID.
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