Album Poster Not Pornographic, Defense Tells Jurors
Calling pornography charges against the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys a “misuse” of the law, a defense lawyer for Jello Biafra told a Los Angeles Municipal Court jury Thursday that a controversial poster included in the punk rock band’s “Frankenchrist” album was meant to shock the public out of its apathy, rather than to promote prurient interests.
“These are not purveyors of smut,” defense attorney Phillip A. Schnayerson said in his opening statement in the trial of Biafra, 29, whose real name is Eric Boucher. “Instead of being utterly without redeeming social importance, this is (of) the highest. It is is one of the highest examples of people that are committed to social causes.”
Deputy City Atty. Michael Guarino, meanwhile, contended that the insertion of a 20-by-24-inch reproduction of a painting by well-known Swiss artist H.R. Giger in the 1985 record album was clearly harmful to children.
“The evidence, lady and gentlemen . . . is the poster itself and your good common sense,” said Guarino in his opening statement. “It will be your determination as to whether or not that poster violates the prevailing standards in the adult community as to what is suitable, appropriate material for minors.”
The surrealistic poster, which depicts in close-up 10 sets of male and female genitals engaged in sexual acts, will be reviewed by the jury next week after the defense rests its case.
Schnayerson said he intends to call Biafra to the stand, as well as an art historian, an art critic and a rock music expert, when the trial resumes Tuesday.
Guarino rested his case late Thursday after having called seven witnesses in an effort to trace the rock singer’s relationship with the distribution of the “Frankenchrist” album. On trial along with Biafra, who operates the San Francisco-based Alternative Tentacles Records firm that distributes “Frankenchrist,” is the firm’s general manager, Michael Bonanno, 27.
The pair are charged with having distributed harmful material to minors, an offense that carries a maximum one-year jail term and $2,000 fine.
However, Guarino has said outside of court that he does not intend to incarcerate the pair if they are convicted. Rather, he said, the prosecution, which he conceded has cost upwards of $50,000 to taxpayers, is meant to “demonstrate a commitment to the law.”
The city attorney’s office filed the case after receiving a complaint from the mother of a teen-age girl who bought the album at a Wherehouse music store in the Northridge Fashion Mall in December, 1985.
Both testified for the prosecution Thursday, but outside the courtroom afterward, they indicated misgivings concerning the legal case.
Tammy Scharwath, 15, said of the poster: “I thought it was gross--it wasn’t harmful.” Her mother, Mary Ann Thompson, told reporters: “I thought I’d just have to complain and it would all be taken care of. . . . I didn’t realize it would all go to court and be a big to-do.”
Since criminal proceedings were initiated, the poster has not been included in the album by the now-defunct punk group, which recorded such songs as “California Uber Alles” and “Religious Vomit” during its heyday.
After the day’s session, Guarino, who said the prosecution is only the second he knows of under the 1969 statute concerning distribution of harmful material to minors, said he proved his case without having called any expert witnesses because “the poster speaks for itself.” “That’s the way it should always be in an obscenity case,” Guarino said. Schnayerson, however, said that his witnesses will help show that the poster, if anything, represented a statement against rampant sex.
“The work was done by an artist who is legitimate,” he said in his opening statement.
The original painting has been displayed in several art museums and galleries, including the Bronx Museum, according to Les Barany, Giger’s agent. Giger in 1980 shared an Academy Award for best visual effects for the science-fiction horror film, “Alien.”