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.
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.
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.
Regardless, you can catch Homicide Hunter at its new time: Wednesdays at 10 PM on Investigation Discovery.
(Photo credits: Are Joe Kenda’s cases real via Twitter)