Talk show held negligent in guest's killing
May 7, 1999
PONTIAC, Michigan (CNN) -- In a verdict called "chilling" by the defense and "a blow for freedom" by the plaintiffs, a jury on Friday ordered producers of "The Jenny Jones Show" to pay more than $25 million to the family of a gay man who was slain after revealing during the taping of a show that he had a crush on a male guest.
The jury of five women and four men, after deliberating for under seven hours in two days, found the show and its owner, Warner Bros., negligent in the 1995 death of Scott Amedure, 32. Warner Bros., like CNN Interactive, is a Time Warner Inc. company.
Amedure was shot twice in the chest and killed by Jonathan Schmitz, who learned in a taping of the show that his secret admirer was Amedure, not a woman. The Amedure family brought the wrongful-death lawsuit, saying "The Jenny Jones Show" was negligent in humiliating Schmitz, prompting him to kill Amedure three days after the taping.
The episode was never aired and Schmitz -- who in a 911 call after the killing blamed the show -- is in jail, awaiting a retrial on second-degree murder charges.
Eight out of nine jurors had to approve a verdict; one juror told the judge that he had voted against it.
Amedure's father, Frank, hugged lawyers and family members after the verdict was read. The family had sought a damage award of $71.5 million.
In addition to funeral expenses of $6,500, jurors awarded $5 million in damages for Amedure's suffering before he died, $10 million to the family for the loss of his companionship and $10 million for the loss of money Amedure would have earned.
Plaintiffs: Victory against 'renegade business'
Defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger told reporters following the verdict that he feels the jury struck "a blow for freedom and justice" and that it had sent a message to relationship talk-show producers, "an entire industry which takes advantage of individuals and uses the emotions of individuals for the entertainment of others."
Refuting the defense team's assertion that the case infringed on the talk show industry's First Amendment right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution, Fieger said, "What it (the verdict) says is that you can't abuse people, you have to at least be forthright, tell the people what they're going to be getting involved in and ... make sure you don't involve mentally ill people who could strike out."
Psychiatrists have testified that Schmitz suffers from manic-depression and has a thyroid condition, which could result in emotional side effects.
"These shows are incredibly cheap," Fieger said. "This is a renegade business, these are irresponsible people (producers of such shows) who think they're a law unto themselves, who don't understand even when they're lying to people."
Defense: 'Chilling effect' on talk and news shows
Outside the courtroom, defense attorney James Feeney said, "Anyone involved in the business of interviewing ordinary people... ought to be very concerned about the chilling effect this decision will have on them. These are issues that have much broader implications than just 'The Jenny Jones Show.'"
"You never know what's going to set somebody off," said Zazi Pope, Warner Bros. senior vice president. "But we do not feel the show was to blame. We believe that Jonathan Schmitz was to blame.
"As one of Mr. Fieger's own expert witnesses said on the stand," Pope said to illustrate what she sees to be the effect of the ruling, "if a reporter from (CBS News') '60 Minutes' confronts an executive with an incriminating document during an interview and that executive goes home and causes harm to himself or somebody else, '60 Minutes' is liable. That is the message of this verdict and I think everyone in the media and everyone who cares about free speech in this country should be very concerned."
Pope said Warner Bros. and Telepictures, which produces "The Jenny Jones Show," will appeal the verdict.
A caution to talk shows
Amedure's family has argued that a mentally ill Schmitz was lured onto the talk show, believing he would meet a woman, and was embarrassed into murder when his secret admirer turned out to be Amedure. Schmitz, who admits he shot Amedure, has said he is heterosexual.
Schmitz was convicted in 1996 in Amedure's death but the verdict was thrown out on appeal. His retrial is to be in August.
Attorneys for Warner Bros., the show's owner, argued Schmitz was told his secret admirer could be a man or woman, and they say the show played no role in Amedure's death.
A producer testified that Schmitz hadn't seemed upset after the taping. Producers also contended Schmitz might have killed Amedure because the two had a sexual encounter, a charge plaintiffs' attorney Geoffrey Fieger denied.
Jurors watched the taped episode showing Amedure talking about a sexual fantasy involving Schmitz, and Schmitz's reaction when the fantasy is shown to him -- he buries his face in his hands.
CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack calls the jury verdict a "substantial" and "astounding" one.
Talks shows should "be very, very careful" and check on the psychological backgrounds of their guests, Cossack says.
CNN News Group, owned by Time Warner Inc. unit TBS, includes Cable News Network and an array of related news and information services including CNN Interactive. Warner Bros. is also owned by Time Warner Inc.
Correspondent Ed Garsten contributed to this report.
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