Modified Sept. 11, 2014
Shawn Davis is serving 18 years in prison after pleading guilty in the stabbing death of his ex-girlfriend, Tawanna Barnes-Copeland, in her Washington apartment in December 2010. The case was recreated in a March episode of the true-crime documentary series “Fatal Attraction,” which promises a “glimpse into the dark heart of a dangerous romance.”
But viewers of the show, titled “Raging Bull,” saw another man depicted as the prime suspect: Gary Jefferson, who was portrayed by an actor as a jealous lover seeking revenge.
This came as a shock to the real Gary Jefferson, who watched the show when it first aired on the TV One network, he says in a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
“He was, as you can imagine, livid,” his lawyer, Lanet Scott, said Wednesday.
Jefferson is seeking $650,000 in damages from TV One and Jupiter Entertainment, the production company behind “Fatal Attraction.” The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to prevent the episode from ever being aired again.
A DVD of the show provided by Jupiter Entertainment shows Jefferson’s alibi being verified about 36 minutes into the 45-minute program, followed by his elimination as a suspect. Attention then turns to Davis, who confesses and is convicted.
However, Jefferson alleges the program portrayed him as the killer and misrepresented his relationship to the victim.
“Defendants owed the Plaintiff a duty to accurately depict him and his involvement with Ms. Barnes-Copeland,” the complaint states. “Alternatively, defendants had a duty to investigate, interview appropriate persons, conduct research and/or otherwise gather necessary facts to depict the truth accurately.”
Davis pleaded guilty in November 2011 and was sentenced in March 2012, according to D.C. court records. On the night of her murder, Barnes-Copeland had called Davis to pick up a prescription for pain medication after she injured her leg at work, according to news accounts of Davis’ criminal hearings. Davis stabbed Barnes-Copeland in her bed and then staged the apartment to make it appear as if there were a burglary.
“Fatal Attraction” had a different version of events, according to Jefferson’s lawsuit. He alleges he was portrayed as a jilted man who killed Barnes-Copeland after she decided to end things with him and reunite with an ex-lover. The show also claimed Jefferson evaded police prior to being arrested.
In real life, however, Jefferson claims he and Barnes-Copeland were not romantically involved but “friends, at best” who engaged in consensual sex one or two times. Jefferson also was not hiding from police but willingly spoke with officers two days after Barnes-Copeland’s death, his complaint states.
“‘Raging Bull’ was not driven by powerful, first-person perspectives because defendants never interviewed and/or otherwise communicated with the plaintiff — [who,] by their own admission, was a prime suspect and thus should have played a key role in depicting the truth,” the complaint states.
The episode also referred to Jefferson by his nickname, “Bo,” “ensuring that the world would know [his] identity without question.”
After the episode originally aired, the defendants “took the remedial measure” of removing the episode from public view for a “short stint,” according to the lawsuit. Scott, a Capitol Heights solo practitioner, also raised her client’s concerns with the episode, the complaint states. But the show re-aired last month, with a new title, “Raging Revenge,” and the suspect’s name changed from “Gary Jefferson” to “Larry Thompson,” the complaint states.
“Defendants did not bestow upon [Jefferson] a courtesy by changing his name,” the lawsuit states.
In addition to defamation, the lawsuit seeks damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A spokeswoman for Silver Spring-based TV One said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Todd Moss, a vice president and executive producer with New York- and Knoxville, Tenn.-based Jupiter Entertainment, did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
Later, on advice of counsel, Moss declined to comment on the lawsuit itself but supplied a copy of the program and defended its accuracy, pointing out its depiction of Davis’ confession and conviction.
“Jupiter Entertainment and the Fatal Attraction production team go to great lengths to make sure every assertion made in every episode is attributable to a primary source (police, victim’s family, prosecutors, etc.). We also fact check these assertions against police reports, court records, and other publicly accessible information,” Moss wrote in an email. “We have two separate fact checkers vet each episode in-house. Once those two fact checks are complete, we submit the show to our attorneys for a third review. This is a rigorous process, one to which many television producers, news outlets, and print journalists do not adhere.”
The case is Jefferson v. TV One, LLC et al., 8:14-cv-02762-PJM.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published on Sept. 3. The text was modified on Sept. 11 to reflect the information provided by Jupiter Entertainment after initial publication.