Another talk show on trial?

Questions loom about the role of 'Springer' in the Campbell-Panitz murder case

After learning last week that Florida police were investigating an alleged murder-which occurred just hours after the suspects and victim appeared in a Jerry Springer episode together-most people's gut reaction was to think Jenny Jones.

But not so fast!

The attorney who successfully represented the family of murdered Jenny Jones guest Scott Amedure and won a $25 million wrongful-death judgment last year against Jenny Jones' distributor, Telepictures, doesn't see similarities.

"No, no, there are real differences," said lawyer Geoffrey Fieger during an interview with Geraldo Rivera on Tuesday's CNBC program Rivera Live.

"There's just a coincidence that [the two wanted in connection with the murder and the victim] happened to have appeared on the show. Apparently, this family has a long history of marital acrimony, divorce, threats of violence. To say the show precipitated [the crime] in a court of law, I don't think that would fly."

Jerry Springer staffers have stuck to a prepared statement.

"This is a terrible tragedy," a Springer representative said. "The Sarasota County sheriff's department has contacted us, and we are cooperating with its investigation. We have been asked not to comment further."

As the case in Florida stands, Sarasota County police have suspect Ralf Panitz in custody for the killing of his ex-wife, Nancy Campbell-Panitz. In May, the two participated in the taping of a Jerry Springer episode titled "Secret Mistresses Confronted."

Also in custody is Panitz's new wife, Eleanor (also a featured guest on the show). She had been sought as a witness to the scene.

That episode, which aired last Monday, the same day Campbell-Panitz's body was found, featured Panitz surprising his ex with the declaration that he had recently remarried. A sticky love triangle unfolded as Panitz and his new wife complained that Campbell-Panitz was stalking them and needed to be stopped.

Campbell-Panitz originally thought that her ex-husband wanted to use Jerry Springer as a way for the two to reconcile. During the course of the hour, Panitz did admit to having had sex with Campbell-Panitz the day before the show was taped.

Or as Panitz explained during the episode, "I do love Eleanor very deeply. I have feelings for Nancy, but Nancy destroyed me. Nancy is very nice sometimes, but then she changes into Mrs. Jekyll. I cannot deal with it anymore."

But Fieger considers a restraining order, coupled with an eviction notice leveled against Panitz and his new wife, to be more telling.

On Monday, the day the episode in question aired, Campbell-Panitz had asked for a restraining order against her ex-husband. She had also had Eleanor served with an eviction notice ordering her to leave the home to which all three reportedly had rights. It was in this disputed home that the murder allegedly took place.

To Fieger, those two court actions alone provide plenty of motive.

From a transcript taken from that Sarasota County Judicial Center hearing Monday, Campbell-Panitz said of her ex-husband: "He's extremely violent. [On July 10], he chased me with a knife and made threats about taking my life, ending my life, and the way he was going to torture me."

The fact that the Jerry Springer episode in question aired the same day both court orders were served was a coincidence rather than an incitement for Panitz to commit a crime, said Fieger.

"In order to win this case, you're going to have to prove to a jury, in their mind, that if this show hadn't occurred, he wouldn't have killed her. You'll never be able to do that. It's called proximate cause," Fieger explained.

One nagging question: How did these troubled three wind up on Jerry Springer?

Considering the flak Jenny Jones caught (and in a more recent example, Fox's missteps on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?), one might ask why the Jerry Springer staff wasn't more careful.

Yet, as a general rule, to minimize liability charges, potential Jerry Springer guests are given a list of all possible surprises that could be awaiting them.

Also a factor distinguishing Panitz from Jonathan Schmitz (the Jenny Jones guest convicted of second-degree murder for killing Amedure) is that Panitz was the one doing the surprising.

In contrast, lawyers argued that Schmitz was far from being in control, that the 1995 Jenny Jones show enraged him by unfairly ambushing him. Schmitz's shock proved to a jury that Jenny Jones producers (currently appealing the $25 million ruling against them) were guilty of negligence.

The shock wasn't on Panitz's part in this situation.

This is also Jerry Springer we're talking about. "In this case, no one was surprised here. I mean, the [show's format] was not a mystery," said former prosecutor and Rivera guest Mickey Sherman. "They didn't think they were going to go on 20/20."