By EW Staff
Updated December 24, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

The night before Christmas Eve 1985, in Sparks, Nev., high school dropouts Ray Belknap, 18, and Jay Vance, 20, split 12 beers while listening to five hours of what Jay’s born-again mom derided as ”garbage music”-the Judas Priest heavy-metal album Stained Class. Both youths were furious about Ray’s recent loss of a day’s pay-$50-to his boss in a foolish pool hall bet. After fantasizing about kicking the boss’ butt, Jay and Ray played the male-bonding game of ”bloody knuckles,” punching each other’s fists. After Priest sang, ”Keep the world with all its sin/ It’s not fit for living in,” Jay said, ”Let’s leave this world,” and the duo trashed Ray’s bedroom. Ray then fetched his favorite 12-gauge shotgun from beside the stereo and leaped out the window. Jay raced after him to the merry-go-round at the nearby Community First Church of God preschool. There Ray blew his brains out, and Jay shot off much of his face but survived. Jay braved years of excruciating surgery, got hooked on cocaine, and died of a methadone overdose on Thanksgiving 1988. Before his death, his mom and Ray’s mom had initiated a suit against CBS Records and Judas Priest for $6.2 million. They claimed the band’s music had provoked their sons’ deaths by an insidious process: the subliminal recording (audible only to the subconscious mind) of the words do it on the cut ”Better by You, Better Than Me.” The suit alleged that Judas Priest had ”mesmerized” the young men ”into believing the answer to life is death.” State district court judge Jerry Carr Whitehead said that subliminal messages are not protected under the First Amendment. Judas Priest’s attorney decried the ”subliminal” theory and insisted the words do it cannot be heard on the tune. Ray and Jay, he argued, had sources of torment other than their stereos. Both were alcohol abusers from broken homes. Jay had twice put his mom in the hospital, having assaulted her with his fists, a pistol, and a hammer, while Ray, who once was arrested for exposing himself to women, was busted two weeks before his death for torturing a cat. In August 1990, Whitehead declared Judas Priest not liable for leading Ray and Jay to their deaths. Though it was found that do it was indeed buried deep in the mix, it had been unintentionally recorded, the judge ruled. But with this precedent, Whitehead left open the question of whether subliminal messages in recordings are protected as free speech. *

TIME CAPSULE Dec. 23, 1985 Lionel Richie scored with the ditty ”Say You, Say Me,” while Michael J. Fox raced Back to the Future on movie screens. Kate & Allie were TV’s favorite couple, and Jean Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters was the best-selling novel.