Did television's toughest prosecutor kill Melinda Duckett?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 15 2006 4:51 PM

Graceless

Did Nancy Grace kill Melinda Duckett?

(Continued from Page 1)

The problem is the hubris that comes with presuming to speak for voiceless children. Sometimes you get it wrong. One of Grace's worst moments came this July when she tried to unload the shtick on Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl abducted in 2002 at age 14 and found nine months later. Smart had agreed to do the show to promote new sex-offender legislation but declined to discuss details of her abduction. Not only was Grace's corn-syrupy we-are-all-victims-here attempt to elicit those details patronizing, but her persistence finally led even the teenager to snap: "I really don't appreciate you bringing all this up."

Fumbling to recover, Grace first implied that she thought Smart had wanted to helpother victims (in the only way Grace recognizes—by recounting gruesome detail on cable television). Then she recovered, geared back down to corn syrup, and sympathized that "a lot of victims don't wanna talk about it."

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Another criticism of Grace is that she privileges sensationalism, raw emotionalism, and victims' rights over the complexity of the legal process. She declines the journalist's project of clarifying or explaining the law and aims for the entertainer's use of the law as a vehicle for the war between good and evil. In her 2005 book, Objection, Grace dismisses "legalese, arguments for argument's sake. ... None of it matters. All that matters is the truth and it remains the same, no matter how attorneys twist it and turn it and repackage it."

Grace's conviction that there is a single, simple "truth" to every case, and that lawyers and legal processes work to confound rather than clarify it, is chilling in a lawyer. More troubling still, is her tingly spider-sense that she alone can discern that truth in the earliest days of the investigation. But worst of all is her belief that she has some singular role to play in bringing the criminal to justice.

Whatever the police were doing to question Melinda Duckett wasn't enough for Grace. If the girl refused a polygraph, she should have to account for why. If the girl was confused about her timeline, she needed to be a suspect. And if the cops were handling her with kid gloves—perhaps because she was unstable; perhaps because only she knew where her baby was—Grace had no such qualms. She was pulling out the lobster mallet.

Except in this case, instead of advancing justice, Grace managed only to obstruct it. John Walsh leaves those aha moments to his viewers. Grace wants to deliver them on air.

Grace evidently suffered from this little contempt problem while she was a wildly successful Atlanta prosecutor. In a smart 2005 profile, the New Republic's Jason Zengerle noted that the Georgia Supreme Court twice overturned convictions Grace had secured, once for improperly inflaming a jury and once for "an extensive pattern of inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal conduct," including inviting a CNN camera crew to film her inside the defendant's house as a search warrant was executed. It's not just that Grace grandstands, weeps, emotes, and bullies. That is, after all, what cable news feeds on. The problem is her message that shouting, crying, and hectoring is "real" justice, whereas procedural rules and protections for defendants are legal wallpaper.

Grace readily confesses that she isn't a journalist. But she is also a lawyer who has little patience for delicately calibrated legal machinery. She is so preoccupied with giving a voice to victims, that, as was the case with Elizabeth Smart, she sometimes needs to shout down the victim to do so. And what she's created is some freakish hodgepodge of not-law, not-news, and not-even-victim's-rights. She's created her own hermetically sealed legal universe that goes beyond entertainment to deliver justice.

Nancy Grace has created a sort of drive-through legal system in which victims are always nurtured, suspects are always guilty, and criminal courts and investigators are always fumbling to keep up with, well, with Nancy Grace. Outrage triumphs over logic and restraint. Certainty replaces doubt. The sleaze and horror properly blunted by ordinary legal processes are rendered even sleazier and more horrible. All toward some end of nailing Nancy's bad guys.

Among Grace's most revealing statements, as she struggled to disavow any responsibility for Duckett's death this week, was this one: "I do not feel our show is to blame for what happened to Melinda Duckett," Grace said Monday. "Melinda committed suicide before that interview ever aired." It speaks volumes about Grace's world view that in her mind, reality doesn't happen until and unless it's witnessed by her viewers. By the same token, she seems to believe there is no real justice, until it happens on her show.