Biafra trial ends in hung jury

By Jeffrey Ressner. (Rolling Stone, 10/8/87)
The two-week trial of former Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra ended on August 27th in a victory for the singer when a Los Angeles jury was unable to reach a verdict. Biafra and Michael Bonanno, the former manager of Biafra's record label, Alternative Tentacles, were charged with distributing harmful matter to a minor. It was apparently the first court case to scrutinize the contents of a rock album.
The jurors deliberated a little more than a day before declaring themselves stalemated, causing the judge to declare a mistrial and throw out the case. The charges followed a consumer complaint about a poster of disembodied sex organs included in the Dead Kennedys' 1985 album "Frankenchrist".

 The insert was reproduced from a painting by artist H.R. Giger called  "Penis Landscape". The singer's defense was that the poster was both a liters and a figurative illustration of "people screwing each other over" and therefore an integral element of the entire LP's concept, which featured songs about political corruption, unemployment, racism and poverty.

 The prosecutor, deputy city attorney Micheal Guarino, termed the inclusion of the poster "absolutely irresponsible." During the trial, Guarino even compared Giger to Richard Ramirez, the suspected "night stalker" serial killer.

 Despite the charges - which could have netted the singer a year in jail and a $2000 fine if he had been convicted - the mood at the trial was anything but somber. During several key moments of testimony, howling screams from child custody battles in the next room reverberated through the court. Young Dead Kennedys fans piled into the viewing area daily, sporting black leather jackets, biker boots and buzz-cut hair styles. And on the final day in court, a defense lawyer took a picture of Guarino with a phony camera that had a pop-out penis.

 Following the dismissal of the charges, a jubilant Biafra let out a scream of joy, then autographed copies of the poster and album for the jurors.

 But the singer added that the victory didn't come cheaply. Since his arrest, the Dead Kennedys have disbanded, and Biafra's marriage has ended. "I've been wearing Lenny Bruce's shoes for over a year, and I don't think they fit very well," he said, referring to the late comic, whose career tailspinned after several obscenity arrests. Biafra's leagal fees total more than $55,000.

 Few members of the music community came to Biafra's support; Frank Zappa, Steve Van Zandt and Paul Kantner were the only high-profile rock artists to contribute to his defense fund.

 Van Zandt, the former E Street Band guitarist who spearheaded 1985's "Sun City" antiapartheid project, described the entire Biafra trial as "despicable" and said record companies are contributing to a repressive atmosphere.

 "Young artists are being pressured not to be so controversial," said Van Zandt. "Although the controversy suposedly has to do with sex or drugs or Satanism, it also extends to political issues. The Jim Morrisons or the Jimi Hendrixes of the world, maybe they wouldn't be signed now."

 Despite dismissing all charges, the judge warned that the legal issue "should be resolved in another case." Guarino played down further porn-rock prosecution and said the pressing of criminal charges against an album with lewd lyrics was "unlikely".