Best Of '99: Satanism Expert Sought In Zombie T-Shirt Case

Lawyer for suspended student looks to block witness on grounds that he is 'irrelevant.'

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, Feb. 9.]

Lawyers in the case of a 17-year-old Rhode Island student suspended for wearing a White Zombie T-shirt with suspected symbols of the occult will discuss Tuesday (Feb. 9) calling an expert witness on crime and Satanism to speak to the state's Board of Education.

John Dineen, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing student Robert Parker, is contesting the witness, investigator Ed Pierce, on several counts.

"One of the grounds is that he's irrelevant," Dineen said. "This is not a case about crime, but about a T-shirt for a rock band with a '666' on the back."

The lawyer also is pursuing a claim that the school district failed to provide advance notice about calling Pierce. Tuesday's conference, to be held over the telephone, is aimed at laying the groundwork — including parameters for calling expert witnesses — for the remainder of the case, which began last December.

Parker is fighting two single-day suspensions from Westerly High School last June and September. Assistant Principal Jim Spellman said after the first suspension that the 666 symbol on the shirt, which also displayed a devil figure, could be offensive to some Christians, who saw it as a mark of Satan. In the second suspension, he also cited a school rule prohibiting clothing that is cult- or gang-related.

The student is seeking to have the suspensions stricken from his records and to have the school policy declared unconstitutionally vague.

"They're trying to defend against a threat that doesn't exist in their community," Dineen said, denying that White Zombie apparel signified gang-related or criminal activity. "My client has never been charged with any misconduct, let alone a crime."

Thomas Grady, a lawyer for the school district, said he had no comment on the case. Pierce did not return calls for comment.

Friday, the third day of testimony in the case, a teacher from Westerly High testified that she was "on the lookout" for the 666 on Parker's shirt following a 1997 teacher's training workshop on the occult, Dineen said. During that workshop, a handout was distributed that listed symbols of the occult, among them the number 666, the circular peace symbol and the Jewish Star of David, according to Dineen.

Pierce was introduced at the hearing during the end of Friday's testimony. At that time, Dineen said he asked Pierce for an estimate of the number of high school children in the United States interested in heavy metal music.

"And then from that, [I asked for] a percentage of all those kids that end up as criminals," Dineen said. Pierce did not have estimates for either, according to Dineen.

Geffen Records spokesperson Dennis Dennehy said singer Rob Zombie (born Robert Straker) had not yet commented on the T-shirt case. The industrial-goth band White Zombie broke up last year, and Zombie went on to release a successful solo album Hellbilly Deluxe

which features the song "Dragula" (RealAudio

excerpt) — last fall.

"I think it's absurd that a mere symbol leads to anything other than just people having a good time with their music and their symbols," Dineen said. "That seems to be where they're headed, that the mere image of something, the printing of 666, is somehow tied into this demonic danger of kids being sucked into crime and suicide and murder. It's truly bizarre to me."