A snippet from the cover of People Magazine about the Jenny Jones murder trial. People Magazine cover
I have never been a fan of trash or “reality TV” but in the fall of 1996 I sat through 13 weeks of the three-ring circus that was the so-called “Jenny Jones murder trial” in Pontiac, Michigan.
At the time I was a gay student activist at nearby Oakland University, and the publishers of Between the Lines asked me to monitor and write about the trial since it was so close to campus. The trial impacted the course of my life forever.
Today Jonathan Schmitz was released on parole. By now many people know the topline details. Scott Amedure, a gay man living in metro Detroit, had a crush on Schmitz who said he was straight. Scott’s friend, Donna Riley, arranged for him to confess his secret crush on Jonathan on the Jenny Jones show in Chicago.
Jonathan completely agreed to go on this trip, paid for by the show. All along, Jonathan suspected that a gay crush was going to be confessed. He allegedly didn’t want this to happen on TV, but the possibility was really no surprise.
The Jenny Jones program provided guests with alcohol and hoped for some good television. After all, what could go wrong? There was alcohol, a homosexual crush, hope for humiliation, and all of this was only a few years after Geraldo Rivera has his nose busted by a chair throwing Klansman. This was the formula. Red flag number one.
Scott confessed his crush. Jonathan acted surprised. The crowd got a laugh and they all dispersed. What didn’t make the headlines was that Jonathan was on antidepressants at the time. If I recall correctly, he decided to go off his medicine, without telling his doctor, in order to afford some nice clothes for the fancy trip to Chicago. Red flag number two.
The episode never aired which is critical because Jonathan was never “humiliated” in front of a national audience.
Another major piece of this testimony at trial, that didn’t make a lot of news because the jury was excused (and possibly the media – I don’t remember), was that something intimate happened a few days after the taping. At a minimum it was likely kissing, but some testimony at trial suggested that Scott, Jonathan and Donna all may have ended up in bed together.
The day after the encounter Jonathan was hungover and a bit ashamed. He confessed to his father who shamed him further for the intimate encounter. Essentially his father took what might have been a simple indiscretion and turned it into a major embarrassment. Jonathan, without his meds, humiliated by his father, and possibly doubting his own sexuality, began planning the murder of Scott Amedure. Red flag number three.
Scott left a note at Jonathan’s place, potentially referencing something about their encounters over the prior 3 days. The note may have played a role in exacerbating the drama. Red flag number four.
Jonathan got bullets from one location and a gun from another – plenty of time to think things through and calm down from a “heat of the moment” impulse. Instead, he went to Scott’s home and with a shotgun and pumped bullets into him – spraying bullet fragments all over his body, puncturing several major organs, and leaving him to struggle for several minutes before dying. We heard the 911 tape in trial and they were gut wrenching.
All Scott Amedure wanted to do was let his friend know that he had a crush. Granted it was on a grand scale, but who cares. At the time, few had heard of the “gay panic defense” but since this was the highest profile anti-gay murder since Harvey Milk, the world got lots of education. Jeffrey Montgomery, then president of the Triangle Foundation (and later my boss and best friend) attended every minute of the trial and most of the LGBT perspective emanating around the world came from his advocacy at trial.
In essence the gay panic defense was a tool of defense attorneys – a blame-the-victim defense strategy a la “she wore a short skirt so she was asking for it.” Montgomery blasted this line of reasoning as morally bankrupt and was incredibly successful in convincing many that being admired by a gay man was nothing to be embarrassed about. Countless murder trials in the future featured the gay panic defense and thanks to Montgomery, many judges refused to allow the defense in their courtroom! Montgomery passed away in the summer of 2016.
Over time, Montgomery would come to be seen as a leading expert in the gay panic defense. He was the eyes and ears for many anti-violence experts around the world at the Matthew Shepard murder trial, where he again educated the world that being the object of affection from a gay man deserved appreciation not humiliation. The Schmitz defense began a trajectory for our movement that has mostly ended that tactic.
But the gay panic defense reared its head right up until the penalty phase of the Schmitz trial. Only one juror didn’t want to give Schmitz life in jail. She admitted later that she thought the surprise gay crush would have been humiliating and held out for a lower conviction.
Because of that one juror, Schmitz got 2nd degree murder instead of 1st – punishable with 25-50 years in jail instead of life. Schmitz was released on parole yesterday, just 22 years after a blatantly homophobic murder.
I am a little sad today. Not because I am a “law and order” type who believes in the death penalty or maximum sentences. I am neither. I am sad because the worst crime in the land, a planned homicide out of pure animus, didn’t carry with it the consequences that it would have if Amedure had been heterosexual. Of course, this is common outcome for many minorities in our criminal justice system.
At the end of the Schmitz trial, I was transformed. I wanted to do this work full-time and Jeff Montgomery offered me a part-time position at Triangle Foundation where I began directly helping hate crime victims. Six months later, state representative Lynne Martinez introduced the first pro-gay hate crime bill in the Michigan state legislature. My role evolved into policy and then politics and I stayed with Triangle for 12 years. My life and career as a social justice advocate was born in the wake of the disappearing headlines of Amedure’s death.
Many tragic moments inspire people to activism. I am fortunate that Between the Lines gave me the chance to educate their readers about the trial. I am fortunate to Jeff Montgomery for setting my career in motion. But I remain sad that today I am reminded queer people are still battling public attitudes of shame and that huge segments of our community are not able to be out.
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, homophobia has been climbing. Racist and xenophobic hate crimes have been on the rise since he launched his candidacy. He lied about protecting LGBT people and has already turned his back on our entire community.
The rhetoric coming from this administration and the far right have openly set a tone that hate and violence are now acceptable in public discourse. The marauding tiki torch-bearing racist mobs who take aim at Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims and women have also set their sights on us.
But now the stakes seem so much higher because our own president is blessing this behavior. He is practically lighting the torches himself. Hate has always been with us, but the biggest red flag of all is being hoisted over the White House.
It’s a signal. It’s a dog whistle. It must end – for Scott Amedure, for James Byrd, Jr., and for every other victim of hate. It must end.
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Sean Kosofsky was the Director of Policy for The Triangle Foundation (now Equality MI) from 1996-2008. He has remained active in the LGBT movement since then, as co-chair of the 2012 campaign to defeat the anti-gay marriage ballot measure in North Carolina. Until recently, he was Executive Director for the Tyler Clementi Foundation.