Friday, September 15, 2006

Dis-Grace-ful


On September 7, CNN Headline News Host Nancy Grace conducted a telephone interview with Melinda Duckett, a 21-year-old mother of a missing toddler. The mother herself was under suspicion in the disappearance of the child. As the young interviewee refused to give answers to Grace's pointed questions, claiming authorities had asked
her not to, Grace turned belligerent, pounding her desk and repeatedly barking "Where were you? Why aren't you telling us where you were that day? Have you taken a polygraph?" Watching it guarantees a cringe at best and outrage at worse.

One day later after the interview, Duckett shot and killed herself at her grandparents' house. A young woman is dead and all information available to the police regarding her son's disappearance died with her.

Grace has been under a barrage of criticism for the interview, some commentators have claimed Grace pushed Duckett over the edge, some chide her for prosecutorial tactics unfitting in a TV interview. For her part, Grace is unrepentant in the face of such allegations, telling ABC News: "If anything, I would suggest that guilt made her commit suicide." In fact, Grace has fallen over herself in attempts to demonize Ms. Duckett in attempt at exoneration from any charges Grace actually caused the suicide. Her point appears to be it's okay to treat a person as if you were about to water board her as long as you believe she's guilty of a crime.

Unfortunately, that's not the point.

This type of craven and bombastic behavior isn't an aberration for Grace in particular or pundits in general. It is Grace's trademark. And Headline News' decision to spurt Grace onto its daily primetime slot is a just-as-craven attempt to compete with Fox News.

Some may say that's replacing what passes for "news" with what passes for "entertainment" given Grace's regular punditry on infamous trials, but Grace's assignment is an appeal to sensational/right wingery content promoted so successfully by Fox. Like the idea of getting rid, for those tried in the media, of pesky constitutional protections such as fair trials and impartial juries. And, to make matters worse, Grace's somewhat prurient subject matter disguises the rightward drift. You may not see a direct connection, but read on below the fold, it's there.

Grace's Background

If you've been hiding in a cave for the past few years or are simply more discriminating than the rest of the viewing public, you may not know that Grace is a former Georgia prosecutor, victim's rights advocate, frequent CNN "legal expert," and professional victim in her own right. Grace's claim to fame is that her fiancé was murdered shortly before her wedding. This tragedy led to law school and a ten-year stint as a Georgia prosecutor.

This is not an entirely graceful rise to fame as Grace has been cited by the Georgia Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct amounting to harmful, reversible error, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an article about the reversal of one of Grace's many successful prosecutions.

The court also strongly rebuked then-prosecutor Nancy Grace -- now host of Court TV's "Closing Arguments" -- of engaging in "inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal conduct in the course of the trial."


This included, Carr's appeal said, an illegal search of Carr's home to allow one of Grace's expert witnesses to view the crime scene and allowing, before the trial, a CNN television crew to enter Carr's home while filming a feature on her.

Successful charges of prosecutorial misconduct are not, unfortunately, that unusual, but Grace is known for a certain zeal for her work.

Grace has parlayed her experience, her victimhood, and a helmet of blond hair into a pundit career spent blathering right wing law and order talking points on Larry King as both a guest and substitute host. Her targets are not necessarily sympathetic characters -- Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, and, typically, any other suspect in the latest disappearance of an attractive white woman.

As a pundit, she has never met a potential defendant she didn't at all costs attempt to turn into an actual one and is known for a glint in her eyes as she advocates the death penalty for whichever transgressor crosses her pundit path.

But remember the case of Elizabeth Smart? She was a Utah pre-teen who went missing for nine months. A handyman named Richard Ricci was arrested (not charged) and held for two months for parole violations due to suspicion that he was involved in Smart's disappearance. Nancy Grace lead the charge to have him arrested and indicted for Smart's disappearance, calling for Ricci's arrest and indictment on CNN, Headline News, and Court TV. Ricci's wife provided Ricci with an alibi.

Shortly before the indictment Grace clamored for, Ricci, jailed and still protesting his innocence, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. When confronted with the facts of the case and reminded of her call for his jailing and indictment, Grace maintained her position that Ricci was guilty. He had a record, his alibi wasn't too convincing, he had worked for the Smarts, his car had mud on it; he must have been Smart's kidnapper and/or murderer. Not satisfied with Larry King's stage from which to try and convict Ricci, she continued these proclamations on several different shows after Ricci's death. The recovery of Elizabeth Smart from people not connected with Ricci brought no apology to Ricci's widow from Grace.



Had Ricci lived, it is more than merely possible that he would have been put on trial. His chances, given the media onslaught and pundit hysteria, of finding a fair and impartial jury were dim. It's feasible he would have been convicted of at least kidnapping on purely circumstantial evidence. He didn't live, though, and many consider his incarceration and death an example of the media forgetting fairness and true objectivity.

For those who physically survive the accusatory onslaught, such as Peterson, Jackson, Blake and lesser known defendants, national "try and convict" media coverage does little to guarantee a fair trial and impartial jury pool. Does this matter to King or CNN? No. Ratings are ratings and Nancy Grace sells. Now CNN brings Grace to its revamped Headline News coverage.

Now, keep in mind, Nancy Grace is absolutely beloved by viewers. When guesting or hosting on Larry King Live, caller after caller dials to weigh in on one murder case or another and typically begins their comments with "I love you Nancy." Her "convict on circumstance" mode of argument sells very well with murder d'jour Americans, those viewers who felt some odd (and somewhat bizarre) fixation with Laci Peterson or some ownership interest in Elizabeth Smart's disappearance.

It doesn't matter that the Grace is frequently wrong on the law or that she serves as a media leaking point for prosecutors. It doesn't matter that other members of whatever panel she is on frequently take her to task for misstatements of law and fact. She is beloved by viewers for her rabidly anti-defense lawyer stance, her hardcore, right wing law and order views. Her message is this: innuendo of guilt is guilt.

How does Grace describe her new Headline News show?

Grace described the 8 p.m. show as "no-script, no-made-for-TV drama, it's the real thing" and "real people with real stories," adding, "We don't believe in talking heads, legal mumbo-jumbo or sugar-coating what goes down in America's courtrooms."


What are the bets that "sugar-coating what goes down in America's courtrooms" isn't an attack on the disproportionate criminal conviction rate of black males in America?

In the law, we have a saying: When you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. When you have the law on your side, pound the law. When you have neither the facts or the law, pound the table. Grace's regular and frequent pounding resounds with viewers and is coming, with more frequency, to a television near you. As the Reading Post put it, Grace's style of punditry is

another demonstration of the deleterious effect on the national consciousness, when news programs serve a secondary function as purely "entertainment television." With all those cable programs that have many, many, empty hours to fill, ceaseless speculation about crimes . . . and sensationalism, is the catalyst for good ratings.


That should scare people who think a fair trial and an untainted jury pool are desirable options on the constitutional SUV. As an attorney on the defense side of the fence (if I practiced criminal law, I'd be a defense attorney), I watch Grace's commentary exactly because she makes me cringe, makes me throw things, makes me send emails to Larry King calling shame where I see it. I do this because she makes me see what happens when a major news outlet like CNN gives life and breath to a person who thinks constitutional protections are a scam perpetrated by cheating husbands, child abusers, and defense lawyers.

In and of herself, Nancy Grace doesn't matter. The war in Iraq and the needless deaths of Iraqis and Americans immediately matters more. But what does matter is that Grace appeals to the worse instincts in the viewing public. What matters is that viewers, on seeing Nancy fight for justice for "Laci and Connor," don't make the connection that it is their constitution the woman is trashing, their right to a fair trial she's denigrating, their impartial jury pool being tainted with made up facts and leaks from the prosecution. CNN understands that; Larry King has said as much about Grace when she gets out of hand on his show. However, Grace's new job is a sign that CNN is Foxifying itself with coverage that is both right wing and sensational. It's a further move to the right and a very public erosion of the basic fairness we should be according criminal defendants.

In a day when the pundit class is made up of former lawyers and government officials, networks would do well to remind themselves that appealing to base viewer appetites may garner ratings but dumbs down coverage and content. As we move into our slot in the trailer park outside the city of the international community, Nancy Grace is yet another talking head happily tossing cognitive thinking and critical analysis in the septic tank. CNN ought to know better and ought to fire her but, apparently, doesn't care.