Jenny Jones Trials: 1996-99

views updated

Jenny Jones Trials: 1996-99

Principal Defendants: Jonathan Schmitz, The Jenny Jones television show, and Warner Brothers
Claims/Crimes Charged: Wrongful death, murder, and committing a felony with a firearm
Chief Defense Lawyers: Schmitz: James Burdick, Fred L. Gibson, and Jerome Sabbota; Jenny Jones/Warner Brothers: James Feeney
Chief Prosecutors: Roman Kalytiak and Donna Pendergast
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Geoffrey N. Fieger
Judges: First criminal trial: Francis X. O'Brien; second criminal trial: Wendy Potts; civil trial: Gene Schneiz
Place: Pontiac, Michigan
Dates of Trials: First criminal trial: October 14-December 4, 1996; second criminal trial: August 9-September 14, 1999; civil trial: March 18-May 7, 1999
Verdicts: First criminal trial: Guilty of second-degree murder; second criminal trial: Guilty of second-degree murder; civil trial: $25 million judgment for the plaintiff
Sentences: First and second criminal trials: 25 to 50 years imprisonment for each

SIGNIFICANCE: The criminal trials of Jonathan Schmitz, and even more so the civil trial of the Jenny Jones television show, revealed the tension between the belief that people must take responsibility for their own actions while ill-considered and ever more extreme sensationalism on TV talk shows can push people into violent and tragic behavior.

In 1994, the Jenny Jones television show (Jenny Jones), a national television talk show, was planning to produce a program on same-sex crushes and was searching for people who would publicly admit to having one. Thirty-two-year-old Scott Amedure, who lived in a Detroit suburb, fit the description, having developed a crush on his 26-year-old friend Jonathan Schmitz some time earlier, and he contacted the show's producers. Jenny Jones executives then invited Schmitz to appear as a guest on the program, explaining that someone had confessed to having a crush on him.

The producers later said that Schmitz knew the show was about same-sex crushes and that the person interested in him could be a man, while Schmitz maintained that they had led him to believe that the secret admirer was a woman.

On March 6, 1995, Schmitz walked onto the stage of Jenny Jones in front of a studio audience, expecting to find (he later said) his former girlfriend on stage as well. Instead, Amedure was waiting for him and described, on camera, a sexual fantasy involving Schmitz. Schmitz smiled and said to Amedure, "You lied to me." While he seemed to keep his good humor during the taping, he stressed that he was heterosexual and that he was not romantically interested in Amedure.

Schmitz Guns Down His "Admirer"

Three days later, after finding a sexually explicit note at his apartment door, Schmitz bought a 12-gauge pump shotgun and ammunition. He went to the mobile home where Amedure lived and shot him twice in the chest. According to what he told a 911 operator just after the killing, he did it because Amedure had humiliated him on national television. In fact, the show never aired, but the damage had been done. Shortly thereafter Schmitz was charged with Amedere's murder.

The sensationalistic and some would say extreme topics covered by Jenny Jones had gotten the show into legal trouble before. This show, like others, was part of a larger phenomenon that people were coming to call "trash TV" or "ambush TV" (labels that such shows obviously resented) since programs of this sort often made unexpected personal revelations about guests during taping. In the wake of the Amedure shooting, public outrage at such tactics grew especially vehement. Now the show and its producers, as well as Schmitz, found themselves targets because of the shooting.

In October 1996, Schmitz went on trial for murder. His defense attorneys argued that his humiliation in front of a live audience, coupled with the mental instability that his medical records revealed, had driven him to commit a crime of passion, rather than a slaying after calm deliberation. If they could convince the jury that this was what had happened, the conviction would be for manslaughter rather than murder. The defense also called Jenny Jones herself to the stand to try to prove that she and the show had deceived Schmitz about Amedure's identity and sex. But these arguments and the efforts to put the show on trial did little to help Schmitz, whom the jury convicted of second-degree murder. The Michigan Court of Appeals later overturned the conviction on a technicality, however, Schmitz soon faced the prospect of a new trial.

Jenny Jones Show Sued

Scott Amedure's family, meanwhile, who had settled out of court with Schmitz for a few thousand dollars, sued Jenny Jones and Warner Brothers, its distributor, for Amedure's wrongful death. The outspoken attorney Geoffrey N. Fieger, who had often represented right-to-die activist Jack Kevorkian and who routinely won huge civil damage awards, claimed that the show and its negligence had been responsible for Amedure's death.

The show's executives "created a scenario," Fieger said in his opening statement to the jury. "They picked the victim. They deceived him. They picked the murderer and deceived him. They did everything but pull the trigger." The show had put Schmitz in a humiliating position without even trying to discover his past record of mental instability, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. The killing would never have happened, Fieger argued, if the program had not ambushed Schmitz in the manner that it did.

To show how humiliating the experience could be, Fieger put producer Ed Glavin on the witness stand and asked him to describe a sexual fantasy for the jury involving Glavin's own wife, which Glavin refused to do. Fieger also put Jones herself on the stand. Two years after the shooting, she had written a book in which she discussed the tragedy and denied that she or the producers had misled Schmitz. But during questioning, just as at the first criminal trial, the talk show hostess seemed ignorant of the workings of her own series and unable to answer clearly even basic questions about the process of selecting and preparing guests. This put the show in an even less favorable light than before.

Attorneys for Jenny Jones countered that Schmitz had known that the topic in question was "Same-Sex Secret Crushes," and that he had been able to make conscious decisions about all of his actions including appearing on the show, buying the gun, and firing it at Amedure. In the end, the jury sided with the Amedures, awarding them $25 million in damages. A few months later a new jury convicted Schmitz of second-degree murder at this second trial. On September 14, 1999, Judge Wendy Potts sentenced Schmitz to 25 to 50 years in prison. This was the same sentence that Judge Francis X. O'Brien had given him after Schmitz had been found guilty in the first criminal trial.

The Jenny Jones trials, as they came to be known, spotlighted the longtroublesome issues of personal responsibility in a criminal justice setting. This time, though, the culprit to which the defendant pointed was a new one, a television genre that many people found incendiary and offensive. Some denounced the outcome of the civil trial as a dangerous development that might ultimately threaten First Amendment broadcast rights; others applauded it as a message to powerful, profitable, and irresponsible media that it must begin to show self-restraint.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Famoso, Robin. "Ambush TV: Holding Talk Shows Liable for the Public Disclosure of Private Facts." Rutgers Law Journal (Spring 1998): 579-605.