- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Anybody who believes Nancy Grace was chastened by the suicide of a young mother following their tough television encounter doesn’t know Nancy Grace.

The prime-time prosecutor continues to focus nearly full time on Melinda Duckett, piling up evidence to point to the Florida woman’s guilt in the disappearance of her 2-year-old son, Trenton, all with the support of her bosses at CNN Headline News.

The case points a spotlight on the hard-charging Miss Grace, who has quickly joined Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann as one of the most polarizing personalities in cable news.

“I remain dedicated to the ongoing fight for crime victims everywhere,” Miss Grace said in a statement to Associated Press. “Right now, our focus is on helping find baby Trenton Duckett safe and sound, and we will pursue the case until there is a resolution.”

Melinda Duckett, named Thursday as the primary suspect in her son’s disappearance, shot herself on Sept. 8, a day after taping the interview. Miss Grace questioned her about what she was doing on the day Trenton disappeared, pounding her desk and asking: “Where were you? Why aren’t you telling us where you were that day?”

Though Mrs. Duckett’s ex-husband is among the people who say Miss Grace shouldn’t shoulder any blame in the suicide, questions were raised about CNN Headline News’ sensitivity in airing the interview after knowing Mrs. Duckett had killed herself. Portions were rerun on Thursday.

“I don’t fault Nancy Grace for asking the questions,” said MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. “That’s her job. She’s an entertainer. The problem is what happened afterward. She’s gone on a personal jihad against this woman. At what point does CNN step in and say ‘Enough’s enough’?”

Mr. Scarborough’s show last week paid almost as much attention to Miss Grace’s conduct as Miss Grace did to the Duckett case. He calls Miss Grace a “runaway beer truck” and said CNN Headline News gives her free rein because of her importance to the network.

A CNN Headline News spokeswoman dismissed that assessment as absurd.

Kenneth Jautz, CNN Headline News chief, said he hadn’t spoken to Miss Grace about her coverage and added that he saw no reason for her to change.

“Nancy is passionate and outspoken about crime and the rights of victims, particularly in children’s cases,” he said. “I think that comes across in the show. I think she’s been very successful because of her passion, because of her no-nonsense direct approach.”

By any measure, “Nancy Grace” is a hit. It has helped CNN Headline News transform itself: After more than two decades of running constant news updates, the network made Miss Grace the star of its first real show in February 2005. Ratings for the time slot tripled almost overnight, and Miss Grace frequently gets a bigger audience than Paula Zahn on CNN.

Her show airs twice in prime time, live at 8 p.m. ET and repeated at 10 p.m.

Miss Grace went to college to be an English teacher, but her life changed in 1980 when her fiance was killed in a mugging by a man out on parole. Convinced that victims were overlooked in the criminal justice system, she became a prosecutor in Atlanta, then a quick-witted and forceful pundit for Court TV and other outlets.

Using evidence both solid and circumstantial, Miss Grace pieces together cases with a prosecutorial zeal. The attention puts pressure on real authorities investigating cases. All of it, she believes, benefits crime victims.

Her critics find Miss Grace too quick to make damning judgments, suggesting her work runs counter to the justice system’s presumption of innocence. Her hunches often are right, but what kind of damage can they do when she’s wrong?

Seven years ago, Miss Grace said she “would definitely have voted to indict” the Ramseys in their daughter JonBenet’s death. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” she said. When John Mark Karr was arrested this summer as a suspect in the girl’s murder, she repeatedly called him a “perv” before the allegations fell apart. The case remains unsolved.

When runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks was missing, Miss Grace said, “I just don’t believe it’s a case of cold feet” before it turned out to be exactly that.

Lauren Ritchie, a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel, suggested Miss Grace went over the edge by intimating in a “Good Morning America” interview that guilt made Melinda Duckett commit suicide.

“Grace’s performance so far is only a slim cut above TV show host Jerry Springer’s antics,” Miss Ritchie wrote. “Springer, however, doesn’t masquerade as respectable.”

CNN Headline News emphasizes that “Nancy Grace” is an opinion-based show, not a traditional newscast, Mr. Jautz said. He defended the network’s decision to air Mrs. Duckett’s interview after she killed herself, saying both parents wanted to speak to Miss Grace in the hope of locating Trenton.

Virtually all of Wednesday’s and Thursday’s shows were devoted to Trenton’s disappearance. “Nancy Grace” averaged 689,000 viewers the first three days of the week, comfortably above the show’s third-quarter average of 534,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Miss Grace appeared close to crying Thursday when Mrs. Duckett’s ex-husband came on her show and said that despite people blaming Miss Grace in Mrs. Duckett’s death, “I don’t hold you responsible at all.”

She also flashed defiance.

“To all the people that have been riding me like a mule about questioning her, I would advise them to A, take a look at the [news conference] today when police named her the primary suspect and B, join us in the search to find this baby,” she said.



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