Epitome of Smut, Prosecutor Says of Punk Rock Poster
The prosecutor in the pornography trial of Dead Kennedy’s lead singer Jello Biafra told jurors Wednesday that a controversial poster inserted in the punk rock band’s “Frankenchrist” album epitomized the essence of prurient appeal.
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is what harmful matter looks like,” said Deputy City Atty. Michael Guarino, as he displayed a copy of the 20-by-24-inch poster during his closing argument. “You want the definition? Then look at the poster.”
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, countered that Biafra, 29, is a socially conscious artist who has sought through his lyrics and album packages to combat racism, sexism and the over-mechanization of society, often by shocking his audience.
Citing the lyrics to such “Frankenchrist” songs as “Soup is Good Food,” “Stars and Stripes of Corruption” and “Jock-O-Rama, “ Biafra’s attorney, Phillip A. Schnayerson, contended: “These are not purveyors of smut. . . . You’ve got to be a madman to think that.”
At day’s end, the 12-member jury began deliberating on the single-count misdemeanor case against Biafra, a San Francisco resident whose real name is Eric Boucher, and Michael Bonanno, 27, the general manager of Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles Records firm that distributed the recording. They are accused of distributing harmful material to minors.
If convicted, they face maximum one-year jail terms and $2,000 fines, although Guarino has indicated outside of court that he does not intend to seek jail time. Before the trial began last week, Guarino dropped charges against three other co-defendants.
The trial has been termed important by the defense because of its potential impact on freedom of speech by artists. Guarino, on the other hand, has categorized the prosecution as an attempt at “regulating businesses” that sell materials to minors.
The case was filed after the city attorney’s office received a complaint from the mother of a teen-age girl who bought the 1985 album at a Wherehouse music store in the Northridge Fashion Mall. They were called as prosecution witnesses last week, although outside the courtroom afterward, the daughter, Tammy Scharwath, 15, said she thought the poster “was gross--it wasn’t harmful.”
At issue is a reproduction of a surrealistic painting entitled “Penis Landscape” by a Swiss artist, H.R. Giger, who shared an Academy Award for best visual effects for the science-fiction horror film “Alien.” The painting depicts 10 sets of male and female genitals engaged in sexual acts.
The recording, which has sold more than 50,000 copies, no longer contains the poster.
The poster was displayed repeatedly in the courtroom by Guarino and defense attorneys during the three-day trial, before a packed courtroom which included several fans under 18. After the jury retired, two youngsters stared at what appeared to be Guarino’s copy of the poster as Los Angeles Municipal Judge Susan E. Isacoff sat several feet away.
Isacoff, through her court clerk, said she had no comment about minors viewing the allegedly offensive poster in her courtroom. Guarino said he did not realize anyone was looking at his copy of the poster.
Although the album cover stated that the poster inside might be seen by some as “shocking, repulsive or offensive,” Guarino termed it a “smart-aleck warning.”
At one point, Guarino went so far as to compare Giger to alleged Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, saying they both view “people as objects. . . . It’s OK to hurt them.”
Outside the courtroom, Schnayerson termed the reference to Ramirez, who has not yet been tried in connection with a string of 14 Los Angeles County murders, “ridiculous.”
The defense also cited the opinions of three art and music experts whom they had called to testify this week. The experts said the painting, even if ugly, was legitimate art.
Biafra, in a last-minute decision, did not take the witness stand himself. A one-time San Francisco mayoral candidate who was dressed in a three-piece suit, Biafra outside the courtroom called the prosecution “a sham.”
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