The basic facts are not really in dispute. It all began when TV talk-show host Jenny Jones decided to do a show on "secret crushes." Jonathan Schmitz was invited to appear on the show to learn who it was that had a crush on him. He thought it was a woman named Donna, whom he knew.
But it turned out to be a man named Scott Amedure, whom he also knew. Before Jonathan was brought out on the stage, Scott -- who is gay -- was asked whether Jonathan was also homosexual. He responded "anything is possible" and described Jonathan -- who is heterosexual -- as having "a cute little hard body." Scott said his sexual fantasy with Jonathan involved "whipped cream" and "a hammock."
When Jonathan was later introduced to the studio audience, he was greeted with laughs, jeers and leers. He was outraged by what he regarded as an ambush. Several days after the show was taped, Jonathan went to Scott's mobile home and shot him to death.
The tape of the "Jenny Jones" show was never broadcast, but it will be seen by the jury, because Schmitz is now claiming that the anguish and humiliation generated by the talk show made him do it.
There is more to the defense than merely the talk show. Schmitz's lawyers are claiming that the incident fed into the defendant's pre-existing Graves' disease, a thyroid condition which causes the overproduction of a hormone that regulates heart rate and metabolism and which can cause emotional agitation.
But at bottom, the claim is that "but for the 'Jenny Jones' show, Jonathan Schmitz would not be in jail and Scott Amedure would be enjoying his normal activities. . .," as one of his lawyers put it.
The case raises the fundamental question of who and what killed the victim? Was it the talk show? Was it homophobia? Was it the defendant's illness? Was it the defendant's malice? The answer is yes! In some respect, it was all of the above. The combination of unlikely factors produced a lethal mix. But for any one of them, Scott Amedure might still be alive today.
On a moral level, surely the "Jenny Jones" show bears some of the responsibility for ambushing Jonathan Schmitz in front of a studio audience and what he believed would be a subsequent television audience of millions.
Jenny Jones and her producers should have realized that -- tragically -- we live in a world full of homophobics, encouraged by religious and political fanatics. That is the sad reality. Perhaps Schmitz's extreme reaction could not have been anticipated, but any perceptive observer of the human condition should have realized that he might be upset at the public challenge to his sexual identity.
To point a finger of moral blame at the "Jenny Jones" show is not, however, to exculpate the man who pulled the trigger. He bears sole legal responsibility for his own murderous conduct. He should not be allowed an abuse excuse of "The show made me do it." The law correctly requires every sane person to control his reaction to a perceived embarrassment.
If Schmitz's illness limited his ability to control his conduct, he would be entitled to an insanity defense, or perhaps a reduction of the charges from first-degree murder to a lesser level of homicide, but if he could exercise control, the reason why he chose not to -- the embarrassment caused by the show -- would not excuse or justify his actions. It might explain why he acted, but to understand is not necessarily to forgive.
Jenny Jones should not take any solace from the legal conclusion that her show's conduct does not excuse Schmitz's conduct. The First Amendment protects the show from any legal consequences, but it does not immunize them from the criticism, which they justly deserve, for their irresponsible actions.
The public often has difficulty understanding how a single crime can be "caused" by several factors or actors. But in life, a multiplicity of "causes-in-fact" may contribute to a single result.