Nancy Grace Doesn’t Regret a Goddamn Thing
The tough-talking legal eagle opens up to Marlow Stern about her career, various controversies, and whether she has any regrets.
I have a confession to make: I have long harbored a fascination with Nancy Grace, and her “unique brand of truculent righteousness,” as Oxygen’s Injustice with Nancy Grace puts it. Who can forget her showdown with the rapper 2 Chainz over marijuana legalization, or her breathless coverage of the Casey Anthony case? The former Atlanta prosecutor has had shows on HLN, Court TV, and now Oxygen, and her feverishly intense persona, coated in a Southern accent, has been parodied by the likes of Law & Order: SVU, Saturday Night Live, and perhaps most famously, in the film Gone Girl.
“I have no concern about a legacy,” Grace tells me. “I would hope that it would be for seeking justice. But my legacy is not my concern right now. I have a lot of cases to tackle, and many injustices I hope to address, before I can consider a legacy.”
In real life, the 61-year-old Grace is much more soft-spoken than she is on-air. She describes herself to me as “a crime victim and a prosecutor to the core”—the first part owing to how, when she was 19, her fiancé Keith Griffin was shot to death. Grace subsequently abandoned her dream of becoming an English professor, enrolled in law school, and has since fought tirelessly on behalf of those she perceives as victims. Her latest project is Bloodline Detectives, a true crime docuseries that has Grace, along with detectives, re-examining famous cold cases using DNA analysis.
Grace’s hard-hitting style has often landed her in hot water and drawn charges of sensationalism. She’s been quick to assign guilt on-air, as in the cases of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping, Duke lacrosse, or Melinda Duckett, who took her own life the day after an interview where Grace grilled her about the disappearance of her 2-year-old son, Trenton. Or there was the time she suggested, without a shred of evidence, that someone may have drowned Whitney Houston.
“I report and cover and investigate very disturbing criminal cases. I consider those facts to be evidence. If other people consider true crime to be sensational, I would say that they’re wrong,” she argues.
Grace took time out of her busy schedule of hosting multiple shows, raising kids, and caring for her elderly mother to speak with me about her life and career.
Bloodline Detectives deals with DNA analysis. How do you think DNA has altered the landscape when it comes to criminal justice?
Well, science doesn’t lie. It can either put the bad guy behind bars or exonerate the good guy. It cuts both ways, as it should. In my own case, I knew who murdered my fiancé. I had that peace. In Bloodline, these families have gone long periods of time not knowing what happened. When I first started, DNA was just a pipe dream, to be used forensically. I tried rape cases, murder cases, and all types of cases without DNA. We would have a blood-type match, but looking back, that seems so primitive—to say that the blood was the same type as the accused. So we really, really had to beat the street to come up with evidence and not rely on DNA. It’s made a vast change in forensics and criminal cases.
You seemed to have been ahead of the curve when it comes to the public fascination with true crime. And it seems interest in true crime documentaries has peaked. Why do you feel the public has become so fascinated with true crime content?
I disagree in one way: I think the public has always been fascinated, or let me say curious, about true crime. I mean, it’s one of the first books of the Bible. Right after Adam and Eve, there’s Cain and Abel. So, we’re not too far into the Good Book till we get our first murder—that we know of. I’m not exactly sure what happened to Eve. Let me just put that out there. We didn’t hear very much from her after the get-go. My point is, murder has been around since the beginning of time. We see it now more on public platforms—reporting on crime, TV shows made up on crime, and of course, true crime. I don’t think the interest in crime is any different than it always has been, and I think it’s because—and I agree with this, generally—people are good. And that goes for judges, defense lawyers, cops, civilians. For the most part, I think people are good, and so it’s hard for people to accept depravity because it’s so foreign to them.
A good example is Scott Peterson. Because you look at him, and a lot of people—not me, but a lot of people—think he’s attractive. He seemed to have everything going for him—college degree, great job, lovely wife, beautiful home, a family who adored him. So how could this guy murder, on Christmas Eve of all days, his beautiful wife and baby boy? It’s almost too much to take in. But the facts proved otherwise.
It reminds me of the recent Christopher Watts case.
Oooh yes. I found that [American Murder] to be a lot more believable, if you want to call it a documentary, because it was using actual evidence—the text messages and reality, not just talking heads. But what it would have taken for a seemingly sane person to crush his children into the oil containers? I mean, their shoulders were wider than the mouth of the container. They had to be crushed down in there. No jury ever wants to really let yourself think of the depravity of the crime. It’s overwhelming, and I think therein lies the so-called fascination. It’s hard for you to imagine. For me, it’s like looking at a poisonous snake: it’s beautiful yet repulsive all at the same time. And I think our minds wrestle with that.
Is that another biblical reference?
I didn’t think of it like that, but now that you mention it, I guess then yes. I don’t know! I was actually thinking of Harry Potter at the time—in the beginning when he goes in, and he’s talking with the snake and they’re having a symbiotic discussion.
Funny you mention Scott Peterson, because Gone Girl is really a riff on the Scott Peterson case, and you’re basically in the movie.
Oh yeah, with Missi Pyle. I had a fun interview with her. I got a kick out of that! I was flattered and mortified, all at the same time!
Did you think that was a fair depiction of you?
Um… I don’t know. I’ve never really thought of whether it’s “fair” or not. I mean, it’s comedic. And I loved the movie, and I loved her portrayal in the movie. I never thought of it that way. I guess I would just say I was flattered and mortified, all at the same time.
President Trump has used the Justice Department, and Attorney General William Barr, in unprecedented ways during his tenure—including to defend him in a case against one of his many rape accusers. He’s essentially made the attorney general his personal attack dog, and I’m curious how you feel about that.
You know, I’ve thought a lot about that, and I do not believe anyone is above the law. It reminds me of a case I just covered that is getting very little coverage, and it’s the attorney general of South Dakota who ran over a guy, killed him, and there have been no charges whatsoever. And I just had that discussion, about politicians using the taxpayers’ money to fund a cover-up, essentially, and having law enforcement at their disposal, which to me makes it even worse.
But that is why we have three separate branches of government. And speaking of, I’m very disturbed by what’s happening in the case of Mr. Floyd—George Floyd. Now, let’s say you, I, and Josh [her publicist] decide to rob a bank. And, I think I’ll blame you, we agree that nobody is going to get hurt, and then you suddenly pull a gun and kill a teller. Well, guess what? Josh and I are both on the hook for felony murder. It’s not what we wanted, it’s not what we intended, but felony murder is simply when a death occurs in the commission of a felony. So I don’t understand why only one cop is being charged in the homicide. They should all be charged with murder and tried together. I’m stunned that there are lesser charges against the other cops as opposed to Chauvin. I don’t understand it. Plus, they’re all out on bond, for Pete’s sake!
You said something earlier that stuck with me: that you believe people are essentially good. So how do you feel about the presumption of innocence? Because many critics over the years have criticized you for trampling on that legal principle.
I assume, like every other American, it’s considered a protection that I would want if I were charged with a crime. When I reach a conclusion, it’s based on evidence. And let me just finish the rest of that sentence that is so often conveniently left out: the accused is presumed innocent unless, or until, the state produces evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they are in fact guilty. I mean, let’s just talk about Chauvin. I saw a video, for Pete’s sake! I’ve seen eyewitness accounts! As far as what I can see, he single-handedly put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, and he died of asphyxiation. So, I’ve reached a conclusion: I think it’s a murder. I mean, to suggest I don’t accept the presumption of innocence is contrary to everything that I stand for, which is the right thing under the law. And seeking justice. That’s just a perversion of everything that I’ve ever fought for, and a personal attack. But you know what? I didn’t enter this business to be crowned Miss Congeniality, so that’s OK.
You’ve worked with Lisa Bloom before. How do you feel about her defending Harvey Weinstein? And the way she went after his accusers?
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t she walk away from the case?
She did walk away from the case—but not before advising him on how to smear and damage the reputations of his accusers.
You know what’s so interesting? Of course I detest Harvey Weinstein and I wish I could prosecute him myself. But you’re talking about the presumption of innocence, and how all accused have a right to a lawyer, but then when a lawyer does it, somehow they cherry-pick and decide, “Oh, she’s terrible because she’s representing Harvey Weinstein, and her name is Lisa Bloom.” Look: Weinstein is guilty as sin. But do you want her to be a defense attorney or not? I personally do not agree with what defense attorneys do in court. I think that it is a perversion of the truth. I don’t like it. But she did it, and now she’s attacked. Do you want your cake, or do you want to eat it?
But what she was doing was she was smearing—
—Yes! It’s a sneaky defense tactic! But that’s what people want when they’re charged with crimes! I’m not defending it, because I’ve long attacked it and I’ve been vilified for attacking it. But Lisa Bloom was doing her job, as she thought it was, as a defense lawyer. And somehow, she got vilified for it.
You once compared defense attorneys to guards at Auschwitz. Do you still feel that way? And what do you find so objectionable about defense attorneys’ conduct?
I believe that defense attorneys often twist the truth, obscure the truth, in order to reach their goal. Their goal is to get the client off the hook. And I don’t like that. Why should I like that? And to just say, “Oh, it’s my job,” does that somehow absolve what you’re doing? To allow a guilty person to walk free?
The backstory of how you got into the legal profession is a quite tragic origin story. How did your fiancé’s murder motivate you to fight for justice?
My decision to go to law school and completely leave behind a dream of becoming a Shakespearean literature professor was a drastic U-turn. I’ve been told that I had a completely different personality before Keith’s murder. I don’t know that. I don’t remember that person anymore, or what she may have been like. My whole world blew up, and when all the pieces settled, and when I could be put back together again, I knew I would never be happy in a classroom. I had to do something. What that was, I didn’t know the answer to that. And then it hit me: I could try to put away the bad guys so they won’t do this again. I’ve spent a large chunk of my life trying to do that.
Was it hard for you to find love again?
It was very hard. It took me well over two decades before I could consider marriage again, and even then, I was almost two hours late to my own wedding.
What happened in those two hours?
I looked out the window. We decided on the spur of the moment, on a Tuesday, that we would get married that Saturday. And then when the time came, I just couldn’t bring myself to go and walk down the aisle. And it wasn’t until I saw my Dad, and I looked in and saw David [Linch] standing there, and I just tried to walk forward. If it hadn’t been for my Dad, I don’t think I could’ve stood up. But I did. And it was all a blur. And now I have David, and the twins, and I’m the luckiest person in the world.
When you were looking out that window, were you thinking of Keith?
Yes, I did. I thought about him, and I wondering if I was some kind of a jinx, and if an attempt to marry David would somehow bring some bad fortune to him. I fully expected some tragedy to happen, and the thought of it was just overwhelming. The thought of going back out on a limb, literally on a limb, and enduring my world exploding? Years went by before I could consider loving—really loving—someone again. I just couldn’t risk it again.
Was it difficult to remove that armor?
You know, if it wasn’t for David and the great person that he is, I never would’ve married or had children—which have really been my savior, because I was completely consumed with seeking justice 24/7, 365. I worked on Easter, I worked on Thanksgiving. I remember being the only person in the Law Library on Easter, and looking out the window of the Law Library at the courthouse and thinking, “I do not want to be here on Easter. But somewhere out there, the defense attorney I’m going to face in court tomorrow morning has got his feet kicked up, watching a game on TV and having a beer, and I may not be the prettiest and I may not be the smartest, but I can work the hardest.” And I went right back to my table and continued my legal research.
Regarding the case of your fiancé Keith’s murder, there have been reports—and his family’s accused you of this too—accusing you of embellishing the facts of the case.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah. There was a big New York Observer story that went into it some years back, and I realize this must have been a very traumatic incident which can fragment the memory, but you’ve claimed that you sat through three days of agonizing deliberation on the case, and that the prosecutor asked you if the defendant should be given the death penalty, and those claims were debunked.
No, no, no. I don’t recall discussing sitting through days and days of agonizing deliberation.
And there was another claim you made—that he had been killed by a stranger when he was killed by a former coworker.
He was killed by a guy who worked at the same place that Keith worked on a construction crew. I was told that the guy had been fired before Keith started his job, and that when Keith left to go get sodas for everyone for lunch and pulled back in in the company truck, this guy, who I was told was fired before Keith started, unloaded a handgun and shot Keith in the face, the neck, and the back. And took his wallet. That is my understanding of the facts. I’ve not read the appellate record. I could not sit during the trial testimony. The district attorney did come and ask me if I thought we should seek the death penalty, and I said, “No.”
Keith’s killer has been out of prison for some time now, and he really wasn’t given that much time in jail—only 10 years. How do you feel about the way that case transpired?
I feel that justice was served.
I wanted to discuss your career with you, because I’ve been following it for some time, and there’s been a few instances where your detractors have accused you of rushing to judgment. I’m reminded of the Elizabeth Smart case, the Duke lacrosse case, and the death of the Ultimate Warrior, in particular. Do you have any regrets over some of these instances where it seems like you may have rushed to judgment?
As I recall with [Elizabeth Smart suspect] Richard Ricci, I was asked on Larry King if he made a great suspect, and I said, “Yes, he makes a perfect suspect. And he needs to be questioned.” Once I listened to his wife speak out on his behalf and give her story, I was very clear that I believed her. I made it very clear that I believed Richard Ricci’s wife, and I believe what she said about him that night. That, however, is rarely reported. As for Duke lacrosse, I first believed the alleged rape victim and the rape-kit nurse, who indicated that what she saw during the examination was consistent with an attack. I saw no reason not to believe the two of them, and that, to me, made a solid case. However, one afternoon, before the case was resolved, one of the accused lacrosse players gave a very long, extensive public statement, and I watched it and said on-air, “That is the state’s worst nightmare, because he is very believable.” And I made no bones about it. However, that is never reported.
You did repeatedly call the kids gang rapists though.
If the victim had been telling the truth that’s exactly what it would have been.
I see. It was an unfortunate case all around. One thing though that many people took issue with was when you suggested that Whitney Houston was drowned—right after the reports of her death.
I believe I said, “That is why cases are taken to autopsy.” There are very limited choices that you’re looking at in autopsy. You’re looking at death by natural causes, accident, suicide, or foul play. And I said that the medical examiner would definitely be looking to see if there were signs of homicide.
But just to be clear, you said, “Who pushed Whitney Houston underwater?”
That would be the question. If there had been evidence of a homicide, the question would be, “Who would have pushed her underwater?” But clearly, the medical examiner did not think it was a homicide. And I believe it was an accidental drowning.
I wanted to address one other controversy before we get into other things and that is the case of Melinda Duckett. Do you have any regrets over the way that was handled, and the decision to run the interview with her anyway after she had committed suicide?
[Long pause] Hold on just a moment, Marlow. I’m trying to think back regarding the timing of that.
From what I understand, she took her life the day after your interview with her, and then the interview aired after that.
[Long pause] Why do you believe that?
I think those are the facts of what happened, no? But I’m wondering if you had any regrets over airing that interview versus not airing it out of respect for her family.
CNN entered into an agreement with her family, and...
…You’re referring to the settlement?
But I’m just asking if you have any regrets over the airing of that interview, and if you would perhaps play it differently today.
I regret the fact that Trenton’s killer was never brought to justice. I am under a legal agreement. I cannot discuss CNN’s decision to settle that case. I wish that I could.
That’s fair. We’ve talked about how tireless of a worker you are, and you’ve got all these shows, books, raised a family, and are now caring for your elderly mother, so how do you balance all these plates? It is rather extraordinary.
Well, thank you. I’m like any working mom: I always put my children first now. They’ve been such a blessing to me, and have really changed my life. Everything comes after them.
How is the Grace family doing during these strange COVID-stricken times? Is everyone hanging in OK?
Thank you for asking. Our family suffered our first COVID death—the funeral was last week—so I’m very surprised that, at this point, people think that COVID is some sort of conspiracy, and people are still refusing to wear masks. I doubt very seriously that hospitals all over the country have colluded with COVID victims’ families to create a gigantic farce on our citizens. It pains me to see that it’s not being taken as seriously as it needs to be across our country.
I couldn’t agree more.