It was sort of trial by fire — if you’ll pardon the pun. I’d been writing for Between The Lines mere months before I was sent to Pontiac to cover the retrial of Jonathan Schmitz, aka the redux of the “Jenny Jones Murder Trial.” I’d not done a great deal of crime reporting at this point. And I’d certainly never covered a trial. But it was my assignment, and so I took it on with great enthusiasm.
Experience or not, I had certainly heard about the case. It was now August 1999, and the murder had occurred some four years earlier in Lake Orion. Scott Amedure, 32, who had served in the Army until he came out as gay, was a bartender there. He had the unfortunate luck of having the hots for a straight 24-year-old, the aforementioned Schmitz.
Lots of gay boys have crushes on straight boys. It’s happened to us all. But Amedure took it a step further. He signed up for an episode of Jones’ tabloid talk show titled “Revealing Same Sex Secret Crush.” Now, mind you, this may not have seemed like such a big deal. But this was nearly a quarter of a century ago. “Will & Grace” had not yet premiered, neither had “Ellen,” the sitcom. “Ellen,” the popular daytime show, was not even a twinkle in her eye at this juncture.
The point I’m trying to make is that it was a different time. We still lived under the ridiculous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy. DOMA, the Defense Against Marriage Act, was still in effect, and marriage equality was still far off in the distance. So, perhaps America wasn’t quite ready for this ill-advised episode just yet.
America aside, Schmitz certainly wasn’t ready for it when he found himself a guest on the show. He was backstage while Amedure, egged on by Jones, began to share his fantasies about Schmitz. When he came out, Schmitz awkwardly hugged Amedure and made it known quickly that he was a heterosexual. He was not expecting his crush to be a man, though producers testified he was informed that it could be either sex during the trial.
None of this was seen on TV. The episode never aired. But we were treated to a private screening in the courtroom. There, we learned that after the taping, Schmitz and Amedure had even gone out for a drink. If things had ended there, I wouldn’t be writing this column. But things didn’t end there. Instead, what happened up to this point was only the first chapter in this horrific tale.
On the morning of March 9, 1995, Schmitz, who later claimed to have been deeply embarrassed by the taping and the thought that it would soon air on national television, went to an ATM, took out money, drove to buy a gun and ammo, and then drove to Amedure’s trailer, where he shot him twice in the chest. Despite all this and his guilty plea, Schmitz had originally been convicted of only second-degree murder.
This trial was not to get Schmitz off guilt-free. This, we all knew, was not going to happen. In fact, Schmitz’s attorney admitted as much from the jump. All he was asking is that Schmitz be found only guilty of manslaughter, which would greatly reduce his sentence. Schmitz’s attorney, Jerome Sabbota, wasted no time in attempting to blame the victim. “You’re going to find that Scott Amedure lit that fuse and kept it burning,” he said in his opening statement. Later, “The evidence is going to show that the killing was caused by provocation, provocation by Scott Amedure.”
Despite Sabbota’s attempt to convince the jury that Amedure somehow forced Schmitz to shoot him to death, that he left Schmitz no other choice, the jury, thankfully, saw through the homophobia. The trial lasted a mere three days, and Schmitz was again found guilty of second-degree murder. And I wrote a synopsis of all of the above for BTL, published in September 1999.
I was honestly relieved the trial was over and that Schmitz had been found guilty again. He was sent back to the big house, and I went back to Farmington, where Between The Lines was then located and went back to work. Schmitz would go on to serve his time — some would say a measly 17 years — and was released from prison on Aug. 22, 2017.
When I reread the stories I wrote about the trial I am, I must confess, a little impressed by my writing, considering my level of experience at that time. But, mostly, I am stricken by the same sense of sadness I had in that courtroom. What a waste of a life. Who knew a crush on a straight boy could cause a gay boy to lose his life.
Jeff Montgomery knew this, I guess. The executive director of the Triangle Foundation (now Equality Michigan), who closely monitored the Schmitz retrial, had traveled to Wyoming the year before to attend the trial of the two men who killed Matthew Shepard. That crime had taken place a year earlier, before I started with BTL.
Montgomery and I spent some time together during the Schmitz trial, a couple of lunches, a few chats in the hallway during recesses. He wasn’t always available as the master of publicity was often in front of the cameras of Court TV, which gave the trial a national audience. There, live, Montgomery schooled the nation on the so-called "gay panic defense" that Schmitz’s attorney tried unsuccessfully to promote.
This would not prove to be the last time I’d be in a courtroom and hear that defense played out. It didn’t work in the Schmitz trial. It worked like a charm in others. But they say you never forget your first time, and perhaps that is why this trial has stayed so clearly in my mind. So has the memory of Scott Amedure, who didn’t deserve to die for having a crush. Nobody does.