Jury awards $25 million in `Jenny Jones' case

TV show's producers, owners partly responsible for murder of guest

May 08, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PONTIAC, Mich. -- A jury has found the "Jenny Jones Show" at least partly responsible for the murder of one of its guests after he revealed his romantic fantasies about another guest -- a man -- in a segment on secret admirers.

After deliberating for more than 6 1/2 hours over two days, the jury in the wrongful-death case awarded $25 million to the family of Scott Amedure, killed by Jonathan Schmitz three days after a "Jenny Jones Show" taping during which Amedure, 24, confessed his crush and described his fantasies about Schmitz while a live audience watched Schmitz's reaction.

The show, taped in 1995, was never aired.

Schmitz, convicted of the murder in 1996 and now awaiting a new trial, has a history of mental illness. Focal points for the wrongful-death case were whether representatives of the show delved into Schmitz's background before he was invited to be a guest on the secret crush segment and whether anyone told him before the taping that his secret admirer could be either a man or a woman.

The Amedure family sued for $71.5 million in the civil case closely watched around the country as potentially setting a precedent for media responsibility. The verdict holds Warner Bros., which owns the "Jenny Jones Show," and Telepictures Productions, producers of the show, negligent in their screening and handling of Schmitz as a guest and therefore partially liable for the death of Amedure.

Jones was not named as a defendant, though she was called as a witness during the 5 1/2-week trial.

In a statement released yesterday, Jones said she was "shocked and saddened by this verdict," but "the only real tragedy here is that Scott Amedure lost his life. I refuse to lose my faith in the law and in the people I work with, even in the face of this outrageous judgment."

Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures, said in a statement that "the public and every single media outlet (entertainment and news alike) should fear the chilling effect this verdict, if upheld, will have on the basic interview process."

The decision infringes on the First Amendment, said attorneys for the show and its producers.

"This has a profoundly chilling effect not only on talk shows, but on all media," said Zazi Pope, senior vice president and assistant general counsel for Warner Bros.

"Everyone in the media should be concerned," she said.

Defense attorneys said the company will appeal the verdict on the grounds that Judge Gene Schnelz's instructions to the jury were incorrect.

This is Round 1 in a 15-round match, said James Feeney, a lawyer for Warner Bros. "We are a long way away from a decision in this case," he said.

Warner Bros. did not settle the case before it went to trial because "we feel strongly about the principles in the case," Feeney said. "We also felt very strongly that the issues have much broader implications than just the Jenny Jones case."

Geoffrey Fieger, the attorney representing the Amedure family, said in a news conference yesterday after the verdict that the case was about Warner Bros. and the "Jenny Jones Show" "denying responsibility."

Amedure's family has said the show ambushed and lied to 32-year-old Schmitz. The family contends that Schmitz was never told ahead of time that his secret admirer was a man, and he was so humiliated at the revelation that he was driven to murder.

Warner Bros. maintained that he was told his admirer could be either a man or a woman.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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