Banter with the Beast

Casey Anthony Trial: Nancy Grace Interview on Tot Mom, HLN Special

The pugnacious HLN anchor hits back at critics of her crusading anti-Casey Anthony coverage.

Say what you will about Nancy Grace—and practically everything has been said about her—she isn’t simply the razor-tongued scourge of criminal defendants everywhere who has gotten rich, and become a television star, by doing an impression of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts.

Lewis Carroll’s zany yet terrifying monarch kept shouting “Off with her head!” and “Sentence first—verdict afterward!”

Nancy Grace says similar things in a Macon, Georgia, accent.

But wait. You wouldn’t know it from her popular eponymous 8 p.m. program on HLN—where all this week she’s been trashing the “kooky jury” that just acquitted Florida party girl Casey Anthony of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee—but Grace claims to side with Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz’s maxim that it’s better for 10 guilty people to go free than for a single innocent to be thrown in jail.

“I think that is probably true,” Grace tells me. “I agree with Dershowitz. I respect Dershowitz… I don’t enjoy any miscarriage of justice, even if it is the reverse of what has occurred in Casey Anthony’s case.”

Here’s another surprise: For all her tough talk and thick skin, the pugnacious former prosecutor isn’t immune to the criticism and ridicule that is heaped upon her daily by the legal and media elite. Despite “the fact that a juror or media critic, or whomever it may be, dislikes me or what I have to say, I didn’t come into this to be voted Miss Congeniality,” Grace tells me. “I know that I’m going to be criticized, and I know that it will hurt my feelings when I hear it.”

Hold on: It will hurt her feelings?

“Of course it hurts my feelings!” she answers. “Yes, it’s hurtful to hear comments made about me. I know that one day [Grace’s 3½-year-old twins] John David and Lucy can read those online and it’s going to be hurtful to them, and they’re going to wonder why. But more important than that, I can’t care about that—because I have to keep doing what I believe is the right thing to do.”

Ramping up the passion, she adds: “Frankly speaking, a 2-year-old girl is dead! Her body rotted in a swamp! Her skull was full of sediment! I hardly think that I have room to complain that someone has criticized me… Whenever you take a position, whenever you believe in anything, whenever you stand up for anything, someone is going to hate you… So what are your choices? You can either stand by and be silent, and let the injustice occur, or you can care. And you can have the backbone to speak out. If I listened to my critics, I would still be at home under my bed right now.”

Actually, Grace is on her cellphone right now, taking a break from preparing her weeknight show and a two-hour Casey Anthony special that airs on HLN at 9 p.m. Saturday. She’s headed with her toddlers to Grandpa’s Bounce House in Kissimmee, Florida, down the road from Orlando, where she has been ensconced for the trial for the past several weeks. “They love bouncy houses,” Grace says of her twins. “They love to go up and come down all the time—and yes, Mommy goes up on 50-foot inflatable slides.” Her husband left town, so she and the kids will be bouncing under the watchful eye of her executive producer.

“I have not slept at all, and when I’m not at the courthouse, or not in the anchor chair, I have my twins with me,” says the 51-year-old Grace, who came to marriage and motherhood late in life. Investment banker David Linch, her spouse of four years, “has been here from the get-go but he had to fly out of town this morning at, like, 5 a.m. Lucy had just wet the bed and I had just changed her and got her fresh pajamas, then John David heard movement and he jumped up and came in so we all got together. Then they both said they wanted a warm bottle, then the warm bottle was too hot, so we had to put cold milk in, blah blah.”

Even with all that domestic hubbub, to say nothing of attracting nearly 3 million viewers nightly, the biggest ratings of her career, Grace has already found time to vent some private emotions over Caylee and the not-guilty verdict for the 25-year-old defendant she invariably derides on the air as “Tot Mom.”

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“Oh, goodness,” she says. “I cried this morning over it.”

After “Tot Mom” was convicted of lying to the police but acquitted on first-degree murder, manslaughter, and aggravated child-abuse charges, Grace famously told viewers: “I absolutely cannot believe that Caylee’s death has gone unavenged… As the defense sits by and has their Champagne toast after that not-guilty verdict, somewhere out there the devil is dancing tonight.”

Grace has been especially severe on the 12-person jury, which she has accused of all manner of perfidy. “I said that one of them was arrested for DUI, one of them was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, one of their sisters was arrested for beating up her own father along with her boyfriend,” Grace acknowledges. “And I think when you have been arrested or you do jail time, you have a negative perception of the prosecution. And I understand that. If I had to do jail time, I’m sure I would think that I didn’t deserve it and have a negative opinion of the state. But that is absolutely who I would not want on my jury.”

She has been notably scornful of jurors and members of the defense team who allegedly are attempting to cash in on the high-profile trial. Smirking into the camera, she has voiced particular outrage that one of the jurors, who for the most part have retained their anonymity, reportedly engaged a PR company to broker fees for television interviews, and that Jose Baez, the lead defense attorney, has apparently hired a talent agent.

But isn’t HLN and its parent company, Time Warner, and for that matter Grace herself, also making money off the tragedy?

“With every story that TV covers, somebody—some corporation, some shareholders—are making money,” she retorts. “That’s true whether covering Libya, Iraq, the tsunami in Japan, Osama bin Laden, whatever story there is. That day, the shareholders are making money off it. Every newspaper that’s sold, somebody’s making a dime. I feel that’s the way people make a living. As a prosecutor, I got a paycheck for coming to work every day. I didn’t get a promotion when I won, and I didn’t get a demotion when I did a bad job.”

Similarly, Grace, a year into her latest three-year deal, might be making millions at HLN, “but I have no financial incentives in my contract with Time Warner—none!—regarding ratings,” she says.

She was recruited to television by Court TV founder Steven Brill after toiling for nearly a decade as a prosecutor in Atlanta—less a job than a mission, she says, after her fiancé was senselessly shot and killed when she was a 19-year-old college student. It turned out that the camera loved her, especially her penchant for purple melodrama and raging hyperbole, talents that are more richly rewarded in a television studio than in the courtroom, where judges occasionally disciplined Grace for her over-the-top tactics.

She remains unapologetic about her notorious on-camera interrogation of 21-year-old Melinda Duckett, who shot herself to death in 2006 the day after Grace grilled her mercilessly about her whereabouts on the day her son Trenton went missing. “She committed suicide as the FBI were on their way to question her in the disappearance of her 2-year-old son,” Grace says. “Ms. Duckett had given many, many interviews where she had been asked the very same questions I asked her. I do not believe her suicide was the result of me asking her softball questions.” After Duckett’s family filed a wrongful death suit against her, Grace settled the case for $200,000.

And Grace doesn’t like questions about her relentless cheerleading of the prosecution during what turned out to be an entirely bogus rape case against three Duke University lacrosse players—a case in which the lead prosecutor was ultimately disbarred for unethical conduct.

“Have you read the transcripts on our show?” Grace demands. “At no time did I ever say the Duke lacrosse players were guilty—ever, never!” Maybe not, but she did unleash gems like “I’m so glad they didn’t miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape.” And on the April 2007 day that the three were exonerated, she found it necessary to be elsewhere instead of anchoring her show.

But Grace long ago moved on. Today it’s all Caylee, all the time.

“She reminds me so much of my twins,” Grace says. “I thought I knew all about crime, having been a crime victim, knowing about justice, having been a prosecutor all those years, and I didn’t know anything until I had the twins. They changed everything in my life. This case has really hurt my heart.”

Launching into her closing argument, Grace goes on: “A lot of people have criticized me for saying that the jury verdict is wrong, but I do not believe that the fact that I am an upstanding member of the D.C. and Georgia bars somehow suspends my right under the First Amendment. Because the day we stop looking at our justice system, the day that we stop criticizing it, the day that we stop loving it, that is the day that it will be destroyed—the day that we stop caring. And I care.”