Joe Kenda defamation lawsuit offers a glimpse behind the scenes of Homicide Hunter

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Probably the all-time biggest knock against reality TV is that it isn’t real at all. Plenty of shows buck up against the genre’s norms–for example, History’s Alone, in which ten survivalists are dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot with nothing more than a handful of supplies and their wits, only looks fake if you’re an especially cynical person. And other shows are so obviously engineered and over-the-top (here’s looking at you, the entire Love & Hip Hop franchise) that fans are encouraged to guffaw when the writer’s room shows.

Homicide Hunter is definitely in the former camp. But former Colorado Springs homicide detective Joe Kenda’s track record on the force–356 murders solved over 23 years, out of a possible 387 cases–is so unusual that it almost invites skepticism by association. Hence the boatload of “Are Joe Kenda’s cases real?” queries that producers and others associated with the show get asked on the regular, despite Homicide Hunter‘s highly successful run on Investigation Discovery. Fortunately, a recent defamation lawsuit brought against Joe and Jupiter Entertainment, the production company responsible for Homicide Hunter, gives fans an intriguing and worthwhile look at how the the show gets made, along with the extent to which it’s legit.

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The basic facts are these. Homicide Hunter‘s 2012 episode, “Primal Fear” (Season 2, Episode 7) depicted an argument between high school students Moses Cooley and Matt Tuiletufuga, one that ended during school hours with Cooley telling Tuiletufuga “Hey man, you’re dead after school. You’re dead today after school.” Tuiletufuga, who allegedly had some experience (the show doesn’t say what sort) with gang violence in Los Angeles before moving to Colorado, called his older brother Gene and told him he was afraid of what might happen. His brother came to school, identified Cooley’s car based on Matt’s description, and opened fire on it, ultimately killing Cooley’s friend J.L. Jackson.

After the episode aired, Cooley sued Kenda and Jupiter Entertainment, “fil[ing] claims for defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy against defendants.” His argument was that reality did not reflect what actually happened in the episode; as part of their defense against Cooley’s lawsuit, Kenda and Jupiter submitted several police reports relating to the episode–a handful from other incidents at Sierra High School, along with the report of the shooting itself–to the court.

Those reports did illustrate some differences between the criminal reality at the school and Homicide Hunter‘s depiction of events. For one thing, there was “genuine gang activity at work among the student body” at Sierra High, not the mere insinuations the episode offered: Moses Cooley was actually a member of the Crips, got into an argument with Tuiletufuga in the parking lot (not the cafeteria, where Homicide Hunter set the scene), and said he and his friends would have shot him right there, if only they had bullets for their gun. For another, it’s not clear exactly how Gene arrived on the scene; if anything “Primal Fear” is guilty of radically simplifying the story, since nine different people are named in the court ruling for Cooley’s lawsuit.

The police reports also make clear that Cooley was driving a Chevrolet, and not a Chrysler, as in the Homicide Hunter reenactment. But what remained true was that Gene killed J.L. Jackson, and that Cooley was driving the car in which Jackson was shot.

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Keeping all that in mind, the judge in the case had to decide whether Homicide Hunter had “published…defamatory statements with actual malice, that is with actual knowledge that they were false or in reckless disregard of the truth.” District Court Judge Gregory R. Werner cited, among several other cases, the 1971 Time, Inc. v. Pape ruling as support for his belief that “Primal Fear” did not in fact depict Cooley maliciously, since someone in his car did make a “shooting threat” toward Tuiletufuga in the first place.

Where Cooley’s allegations of an invasion of privacy were concerned, Judge Werner reached out to the good old First Amendment for support, and came back with a doozy:

There is no question that Cooley was in some way involved in the tragic events which occurred on November 9, 1995. Cooley’s name is mentioned several times in the police reports. As the commission of the crime, its investigation and subsequent prosecution are events of legitimate concern to the public, Defendants’ depiction of them are protected by the First Amendment. Even assuming the Defendants profited from the airing of Primal Fear, the Court still finds that speech in this case was noncommercial in nature. Under the circumstances involved in this case, there are no circumstances in this case under which Cooley can succeed against the Defendants regarding his claim for invasion of privacy.

What Cooley’s argument came down to, Judge Werner wrote, was that the episode depicted him as a bully when in fact the school had “a gang problem” instead. But, because he was involved with both the initial threat against Tuiletufuga’s life and the retribution that led to Jackson’s death *and* was a member of a gang at Sierra High School, he had no grounds to complain that Homicide Hunter depicted him unfairly or unreasonably. His entire lawsuit was thrown out.

Cooley’s defamation claim serves as a lesson for any Homicide Hunter fan wondering whether or not the show takes extensive liberties in bringing real-life murder cases to TV. It’s impossible to depict any series of events as they actually happened; small details are going to be overlooked or changed inadvertently (think Cooley’s car transforming from a Chevrolet into a Chrysler), and some less-than-crucial elements of the timeline or setting (a parking lot versus a cafeteria) might be altered to make the storytelling a bit smoother. But, on Homicide Hunter at least, the underlying facts of each episode are as firmly rooted in reality as Joe Kenda’s memory of the awful events set in motion once more.

If you’re so inclined, you can read the entire Joe Kenda Homicide Hunter defamation lawsuit ruling here. In addition, for just $1.99, you can stream the “Primal Fear” episode of Homicide Hunter here.

Regardless, you can catch Homicide Hunter at its new time: Wednesdays at 10 PM on Investigation Discovery.

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(Photo credits: Are Joe Kenda’s cases real via Twitter)

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  • Moses Cooley

    Lies after lies! You have never interviewed me nor have you ever met me! My next law suit will be in Federal court, not in front of some local Colorado Springs Judge you can pay off. You would do anything for ratings. “If you start with a lie, you end with a lie”. This is not about money! Did I not reach out to you to give you time to correct this issues? Your fans can put me down, but in the end you will lose!!!! There is a God…..

  • Moses Cooley

    Deceptive adverting, also known as “false adverting”. Tell the truth Lieutennat! You are digging yourself a hole. You have never interviewed Matt Tuiletufga, Cory Willis, nor me “Moses Cooley”. Your name was mentioned in the Police report, but you did not interview anybody you said you did. Your name was mentioned in the Poilce report “once”. You are a fraud! If subpoenaed, Matt Tuiletufuga, Cory Willis and many others will testify that you are a lair, I was never a student, J.l. and I was never friends, I never bullied anyone nor had words with anyone. You have all these people deceived you worked and solved all those cases. You are taking the credit of the real police officers who solved the cases. I have every right to be upset! If you took a lie dector test right now, would you past (if ask about all the things I said you lie about)? What about all the cases you worked? Does the poilce report say anything about me being a bully or the problem? I was sixteen years old. I never screamed like you said in your show, I was in pure shock and never received counseling or help with my nightmares and PTSD. I was a victim! You and the Colorado Springs Police Department should be ashamed of yourself and held accountable. You only won the former lawsuit because you had more money than I and you hired some good attorney’s and had favor with the local judge but your day is coming!!!! Just because a Judge ruled in your favor does not make you honest. You are just like the other crimes shows you talk down on like CSI. You mixed the truth with lies and expect everything to smooth over….

  • Moses Cooley

    And for the record: You and I know both know, I never threaten to shot anyone that day. I am a son of a former Colorado Springs Shrieff deputy and there was plenty of guns and bullets at my home that day. I have never been a punk and never needed a gun against another person. At a time when Poilce officers and tension wth the Public is at an all time high you would keep up the lies and bs. You know the story about David and Goliath and you and I will have our day and you will lose! Mock my words tough guy! Use all the News articles, expensive laws and paid judges you want to discredit me, but God will see me through. If I am such the liar why write this article and try to save face?

    • tentantoes

      So…what have you done with your life? Ever arrested for anything else?
      Do you work at something legal?
      Children?…and do you support them?

    • KSEubanks

      Moses Cooley – “Mock my words tough guy!” I suspect most people really will “mock your words” especially since the way you’re using most of those words is pretty darn pointless. You already lost in court so I doubt that any Federal court will take your case.
      You might just want to move on and forget filing another suit as it’d not do you any good.

    • James Brewer

      God man! What a gang bangin dumb ass.! You didn’t amount to anything then and probably don’t now. Just go back to your cave with it’s single naked light bulb to write more angry letters to the government!

  • betty boop

    moses-“Thou doth protest too much”-as is common with criminals

  • JayP

    I adore Joe Kenda and Homicide Hunter. I love his humor and his perspective. Keep it up Joe. No one even comes close. No one can replace Kenda. No one. And, minor differences have no effect on the truth…just props.