Show Held Liable in Guest's Death
May. 07, 1999
PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) _ A jury ordered ``The Jenny Jones Show'' to pay $25 million Friday to the family of a gay man who was shot to death after revealing a crush on a fellow guest.
In a case that put daytime TV's taste for lurid confessions and confrontations on trial, the jury agreed with claims that the show ``did everything but pull the trigger'' in the slaying of Scott Amedure.
Amedure was killed by Jonathan Schmitz in 1995 three days after the two took part in a ``Jenny Jones'' taping at which Amedure regaled the studio audience with his sexual fantasies about Schmitz, who said he is heterosexual. The segment never aired.
Amedure's family accused the show's producers and owners of negligence in putting a mentally troubled Schmitz on the show and humiliating him.
``That type of human exploitation needs to be corralled,'' said Amedure family attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who had asked for $71.5 million in damages. ```The Jenny Jones Show' and what it does to people is unsafe at any speed. This is a renegade business.''
Lawyers for Warner Bros., which owns the show, compared its tactics to surprise birthday parties and journalists who ambush people with unexpected questions. They warned that the verdict will have a chilling effect on all media and said they will appeal.
``The plaintiffs' theory is that you have do a psychological profile before you allow them to come onto a program,'' said attorney Zazi Pope. ``And then you cannot engage in any discussion of any topic that has any element of surprise.''
The 12-member jury deliberated for seven hours over two days, awarding the family $5 million for Amedure's suffering, $10 million for the loss of his companionship, and $10 million for the loss of his future earnings.
The show's owners claimed that Schmitz knew his secret admirer could be a man and that he was not upset by the surprise. They also suggested Schmitz killed Amedure for other reasons _ including a secret sexual encounter after the taping.
Fieger denied that Schmitz and Amedure had sex and told the jury that the show ``did everything but pull the trigger'' in setting up the surprise.
Ms. Jones, who was not sued but testified at the trial, denied on the stand that her show ambushes guests to boost ratings. She had no immediate comment on the verdict. Schmitz also took the stand at the trial but invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Jim Paratore, the president of Telepictures Productions _ the show's producers _ said he was ``stunned'' by the verdict.
Ms. Jones said in a statement that she was ``shocked and saddened by this verdict. However, the only real tragedy is that Scott Amedure lost his life.''
Amedure's father, Frank, said he hopes the verdict sends a message to other talk shows.
``I'm just proud that we can show people that shows are not going to do this no more,'' he said. ``Please, don't let the kids watch all these shows, because there'll be more killings.''
Amedure, 32, went on the ``Jenny Jones'' segment titled ``Same-Sex Secret Crushes'' to talk about his feelings for Schmitz, an acquaintance. As the audience whooped with delight, Ms. Jones elicited Amedure's whipped cream-and-strawberries fantasy involving Schmitz.
Schmitz reacted with an embarassed smile but no apparent anger. He turned away when Amedure put an arm around him and tried to kiss him.
``I'm definitely a heterosexual, I guess you could say,'' Schmitz said.
Three days later, Schmitz bought a shotgun, drove to Amedure's trailer home in the Detroit suburbs and shot him twice in the chest. Schmitz then called police and confessed.
At Schmitz's criminal trial in 1996, his lawyers blamed the killing on the ``Jenny Jones'' humiliation and his history of depression and a thyroid ailment, but he was found guilty of murder. The conviction was thrown out on appeal, and a retrial is scheduled for this summer.
Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Friday's verdict is troubling because it means traditional news organizations might be held liable if critical reviews or stories have tragic results.
``Verdicts like this potentially could set all kinds of precedents that could impact what we consider good journalism,'' Thompson said. ``If you take that to its logical conclusion, we could be reduced to silence. In this sort of steady circling of the sharks around the First Amendment, this has been a big bite.''