Media restrictions in ‘Jenny Jones’ case limited on appeal
MICHIGAN–For the second time in one month, a state Court of Appeals in Pontiac overturned a trial court judge’s order restricting media access in the criminal trial of Jonathan Schmitz, who was accused of murdering Scott Amedure, a fellow guest on the talk show “Jenny Jones.” One day before the appellate court vacated the access plan, the trial judge jailed a reporter for allegedly violating it.
Schmitz was convicted of second-degree murder on Nov. 12.
Oakland County Circuit Judge Francis X. O’Brien in early October barred the press from interviewing witnesses until the conclusion of trial and specified where courthouse interviews with attorneys could be conducted. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News requested reconsideration, and O’Brien, who delayed jury selection for several days in order to respond, held that his order provided “adequate accommodations and provision for the media.” The judge also declined a request by another Michigan newspaper, The Oakland Press, to hold a hearing on the matter.
The two Detroit dailies appealed to the state appellate court, arguing that the provisions governing interviews of witnesses and attorneys were overbroad and violated the First Amendment. The appellate court vacated the provisions on October 11, finding no evidence of a reasonable likelihood of prejudice to Schmitz’s fair trial rights or the conducting of the court’s business.
However, on October 17, O’Brien issued an order barring the media from contacting witnesses until after they had testified and could not be recalled to the stand, and from conducting interviews with counsel in the hallway outside the courtroom or in the cafeteria. The newspapers again appealed to the state appellate court, which on October 30 overturned the part of the order restricting when witnesses may be interviewed, but upheld the court’s prohibition with respect to interviews with counsel.
On October 29, O’Brien held Free Press reporter Lori Brasier in contempt and had her handcuffed and jailed, saying she violated his order by interviewing the victim’s brother, who is not expected to testify, in a courthouse hallway. Brasier was imprisoned for several hours until Chief Circuit Judge Edward Sosnick ordered her released.
The Free Press moved for O’Brien’s recusal from Brasier’s case, alleging the judge was biased against the newspaper because of negative coverage it had given him. The judge denied any bias, but recused himself. The newspaper has publicly stated that it plans to file a complaint against O’Brien with the state Judicial Tenure Commission.
Schmitz and Amedure appeared together in a March 1995 taping of the “Jenny Jones” show, during which Amedure said that he had a crush on Schmitz. Jones testified at trial that she had almost no involvement in the planning of her talk show. O’Brien initially ruled that Jones’ testimony was irrelevant, but reversed himself after defense counsel moved for reconsideration. (Michigan v. Schmitz; Media Counsel: Herschel Fink, Detroit)