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

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.

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."

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.

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