The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 1995 TV show surprised him with his gay secret admirer. This week he leaves prison.

Jonathan Schmitz wipes his face after he appears on “The Jenny Jones Show” in March 1995, and finds out his secret admirer is Scott Amedure, a gay man. (AP)

When the camera snapped on, Jenny Jones — the daytime 1990s talk show host responsible for mining tabloid drama and human outrageousness for ratings gold — laid a hypothetical on the viewers back home.

“Now which of these ways would you choose to reveal your secret crush on someone?” Jones said. “A. Would you write that person a letter? B. Would you tell that person in private in case he rejects you? Or, C. Would you tell that person that you’re gay and you hope that he is on national television?”

The Chicago soundstage exploded in delighted screams and claps from the audience. The host seamlessly rolled into the segment, which involved springing a same-sex crush on an unsuspecting straight man.

It was not exactly uncharted territory for the show, which trafficked heavily in social taboos, sex and maximum conflict (See: “I Don’t Want My Daughter to Date Interracially,” “I Hate My Own Race,” “My Teen’s Too Hot,” and “Teen By Day, Vampire By Night“). But the March 6, 1995, taping of “The Jenny Jones Show” unknowingly had just lit a fuse that would detonate three days later in suburban Detroit when Jonathan Schmitz felled Scott Amedure with two blasts from a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun.

The murder and following controversy hit just as “shock television” was reaching its high-water mark, the culture’s first brush with showcasing paternity questions, unruly children and general trashy misbehavior for entertainment value — the precursor to today’s reality television standards.

And Schmitz is now walking back out into the world his “Jenny Jones” appearance anticipated: The now-47-year-old was released from prison Tuesday after serving a prison sentence for Amedure’s murder, according to the Detroit News.

The segment that sparked the murder — which never aired on television but is available online today — began with Jones prompting Amedure, 32, to relate his fantasies involving the 24-year-old acquaintance. Jones then introduced the clueless Schmitz. The two men exchanged an awkward embrace before the host dropped her bombshell.

“Well, guess what,” Jones announced. “It’s Scott that has the crush on you.” With the audience hooting at full volume, Schmitz laughed, beamed, and politely explained he was “completely heterosexual.”

But three days later, after a night of heavy drinking and finding a note from Amedure on his door, Schmitz killed his admirer. He later admitted to police he was driven to murder by the extreme embarrassment caused by the show.

“What you are seeing on the tape is a 24-year-old man facing the studio audience and the camera with what I consider to be an ambush,” Richard Thompson, the prosecutor in the case, told The Washington Post in 1995. “He is visibly upset. People are laughing. It’s like a Roman circus where the audience gives a thumbs up or thumbs down to everything that is going on.”

In 1996, Schmitz was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison. That verdict, however, was overturned on appeal due to jury selection errors. In 1999, Schmitz was retried. The second jury returned with the same sentence, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The fallout from the murder was not confined to the criminal courts. In 1999, a Michigan civil jury found the show’s producers liable for the death and awarded $25 million to Amedure’s family. That ruling was also reversed on appeal.

Jones’s show remained on air until 2003. Many of her contributions to the talk-show format — from paternity tests to makeovers — became standards of the genre.