It started with a taping of a 90s daytime talk show. In March of 1995, The Jenny Jones Show did an episode about “secret same-sex crushes.” Scott Amedure, a Michigan resident, nervously gushed to the studio audience about his feelings for an acquaintance, Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz was then brought out in front of the cameras, where Jones, the host, revealed that Amedure was his secret admirer.
“Did you have any idea that he liked you this much?” Jones asked.
“Um, no, no I did not,” Schmitz says, smiling shyly. “But I am definitely heterosexual.”
Three days later, Schmitz “drove to a local bank, withdrew money from his savings account, and purchased a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun,” the Michigan Court of Appeals wrote in its description of the case.
Schmitz then went to Amedure’s trailer, confronted him, and “fired two shots into Amedure’s chest, leaving him with no chance for survival.” Finally, Schmitz called 911 and confessed to the shooting.
The case became national news. Known as "the Jenny Jones murder," it was seen as a violent example of ambush TV finally gone too far. Later, LGBTQ advocates and legal analysts would also see it as one of the best-known instances of something called the “gay panic” defense. Now, after 22 years in prison, Schmitz is scheduled to be released this week.
“The parole of Jonathan Schmitz is a reminder of the violence that LGBTQ Americans face across our country and right here in Michigan,” says Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan. “It’s also a reminder of just how important it is that we work to dismantle the LGBTQ bias that leads to things like the ‘gay panic’ defense in our courtrooms. We have a great deal of work still to do.”
In court, Schmitz’s defense attorneys argued he acted out of impulse, due to both untreated mental disorders and a deep sense of humiliation. “He was in a panic that he was being falsely accused or identified as a gay person,” says Jim Burdick, who represented Schmitz. “And he was clearly in a panic. So maybe it meets the criteria of a ‘gay panic’ defense, though it’s not a term that I recall being tossed about at the time.”
Burdick says even though Schmitz feared his conservative family members would see the TV show and think he was gay, his mental health issues were the larger motivator. “Getting the shotgun to me was always a manifestation of his suicidal tendencies,” Burdick says, adding that he believes Schmitz had previously bought a gun during an earlier incident when he called his sister and threatened suicide.
And lawyers for both the victim’s family and his killer blamed the TV show producers.
“I’m convinced Scott Amedure would be alive and Jonathan Schmitz would have never, ever hurt him or done anything to him, but for that show,” says attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who represented Amedure’s family in a successful lawsuit against The Jenny Jones Show. “It was clear what had set the fuse. It was clear The Jenny Jones Show had set this whole scenario up for their own ratings.”
“It was a set-up by the television show and Mr. Schmitz got lured to Chicago, not knowing that [same sex crushes] were the topic,” says Peter Van Hoek, who represented Schmitz on appeal and teaches at the University of Michigan law school. “He believed that what was going to happen was, [since] he’d just broken up with his fiancé, he thought it was going to be his fiancé who was going to be there and tell him she wanted to get married.”
Asked if he sees Amedure’s murder as a hate crime, Van Hoek says no. “I don’t see this in the category of a hate crime. There’s nothing in the case to say he hated gays. I think he was a very vulnerable person and given a lot of his mental health history … it had a major impact on him individually.”
But if it had been a female admirer who confessed her feeling for Schmitz on national television, would Schmitz have shot and killed her three days later? Probably not, Van Hoek says. “If it was an unknown woman, I don’t think that would have been the same thing. So there’s definitely an aspect of that.”
Schmitz was convicted of second-degree homicide and a weapons charge, and given 25 to 50 years in prison. He’s being released after 22 years, the state says, because of good behavior. Monday is the earliest he could be released, though a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Communications says Schmitz was still in custody as of early Monday afternoon.
UPDATE on Tuesday, August 22nd at 11:00 am: MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz says Jonathan Schmitz was released this morning.