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?

Nancy Grace. Click image to expand.
Nancy Grace

Well, of course she didn't.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Nancy Grace no more killed the mother of a missing toddler last week than you or I did. CNN's pushy prosecutor is being excoriated and berated in the media for driving a guest on her show to suicide. Even her screaming-show colleagues feel smugly certain that she's brought upon herself—to quote Joe Scarborough—"her Jenny Jones moment."

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Grace's telephone interview of Melinda Duckett on Sept. 7 for CNN Headline News turned—as it so often does—into a showcase for Grace's worst qualities. The very troubled 21-year-old mother of a missing toddler never had a chance against Grace's trademark steamroller of mean: "Where were you? Why aren't you telling us where you were that day?" Grace hollered, pounding on her table. "Miss Duckett, you are not telling us for a reason. What is the reason?'' she persisted as the young woman attempted to cobble together a coherent sentence. Grace asked Duckett six times whether she had taken a polygraph test as the woman stumbled to explain why she had not. (Turns out her divorce lawyer had instructed her not to.)

Duckett killed herself with her grandfather's shotgun a few hours before the show aired last Friday. Grace went ahead and ran the interview with a bland yellow box on the screen updating viewers: "Since show taping, body of Melinda Duckett found at grandparents' home." Investigators' best lead to the whereabouts of 2-year-old Trenton Duckett is now dead, and they are left searching construction sites and dumpsters. "Nancy Grace and the others, they just bashed her to the end," said Duckett's grandfather Bill Eubank. It's a tempting indictment, one that even Nancy Grace might seize upon: Vicious TV host beats up on fragile, possibly mentally ill woman, till she snaps.

Nancy Grace didn't kill Melinda Duckett, but she is aiding and abetting the death of public confidence in the law. Grace dresses like a lawyer and talks like one, but the only thing she seems to feel for the court system is contempt. The only time the cops, prosecutors, and courts get it right, in her view, is when they finally nail someone (like Scott Peterson) she declared guilty months earlier. Otherwise they are a time-suck and a nuisance. The law is a means to Nancy's ends. She is the nation's foremost legal activist.

Grace is a former—very successful—prosecutor from Atlanta who has devoted herself to victims' rights since she lost her college sweetheart to a violent mugging. Grace mixes the sweetness of a Southern debutante with the snarling tenacity of a mad dog, and she has carved out a niche for herself on Headline News and Court TV, as a legal expert/talk-show host/roving prosecutor. She knew Peterson was guilty long before the jury did, and even her mistakes (she knew Gary Condit did it, too) are readily forgotten.

Some of the criticisms Grace faces this week are fair, but many aren't. Some go to larger problems about what passes for truth on television and the sick culture of O.J.-tainment that has been with us since the Salem witch trials and has exploded with Court TV. Yes, Melinda Duckett was treated like crap by Nancy. But Duckett, after all, freely chose to go on the show.

Grace's accusers make some good points, though: It was pretty grotesque to air the Duckett interview in light of the suicide. A CNN spokeswoman responds that, "While we were saddened to hear of this development, our original goal in doing the special was to bring attention to this case, in the hopes of helping find Trenton Duckett." Grace added, "We feel a responsibility to bring attention to this case in the hopes of helping find Trenton Duckett, who remains missing. ... While Ms. Duckett's death is an extremely sad development, we remain hopeful that Trenton will be found."

This is vintage Grace. She blithely dismisses the dead mother as collateral damage with her stock "What-about-the-children?" greater-good defense. By purporting to speak for abducted children, Grace gets away with two sins at once: She can make up stuff. (Where is Trenton Duckett to contradict her?) And the end will always justify the means.

Nancy Grace believes that she, like John Walsh, is doing a vital public service, and, to be sure, bringing national attention—good or bad—to the case of a lost child is a vital public service. But by this logic nothing is ever out of bounds, so long as more people hear about the case. Indeed, by some logic the more controversial the show, the higher the ratings, the greater the likelihood that some viewer calls in the winning tip.

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