Friday, February 19, 2010

Fall from Grace?

by Donna Pendergast

September 7th, 2006, was a memorable date for me: it was my birthday (not saying which one). The date was less festive for 21-year-old Melinda Duckett, mother of a missing two-year-old toddler. Duckett later became a prime suspect in the child's disappearance. On September 7th, Duckett was questioned by the queen of tabloid talk, Nancy Grace, during what has been widely called an ambush interview. Within 24 hours, Duckett had killed herself with a shotgun at her grandfather's house. The missing child has never been found, but the legal saga ensuing from Duckett's death continues to wind its way through the courts. The crux of the lawsuit is whether Grace's confrontational style of interrogation interview was responsible for Duckett's subsequent suicide.


Melinda and Joshua Duckett were high school sweethearts. Joshua's family history was troubled in the extreme. His father, James Duckett, was a police officer in Florida in 1987 when he was charged and later convicted for the rape, strangulation and drowning of an 11-year-old girl. For that crime, he sits on Death Row at Florida State Prison. Melinda's life was chaotic as well. Her troubled history included alleged involvement in an amateur on-line porn business.

The couple married in 2005, just before their son Trenton's first birthday. The marriage was brief and rocky. Melinda filed for divorce in June 2006. An ugly custody battle followed, with Melinda granted a temporary restraining order at one point after receiving a threatening e-mail that Joshua denies sending.

On August 27, 2006, while the couple was separated and living apart, Melinda Duckett reported Trenton missing around 9:00 pm. She claimed she discovered his disappearance during a break from watching movies with friends in another room. A cut in the window screen was the only clue left behind for police to follow.

During the investigation, police began to question the time-line Duckett gave them, noting no witnesses saw Trenton alive since he was picked up at day care on Friday, August 25th. Police later found some of Trenton's toys, photos of the child and a sonogram in the apartment complex trash bin. They began to focus on Melinda Duckett as a prime suspect.


On September 7th, Melinda Duckett was interviewed via telephone by Nancy Grace during a taping for the next day's show. The interview quickly became confrontational. With the subtlety of a jackal, Grace began pounding on the table, characteristically snarling and demanding that Duckett tell her where she was on the date of the disappearance and whether she had taken a polygraph. Grace also hammered on the inconsistencies in Duckett's story. The next day, Duckett killed herself after leaving a suicide note just hours before the show was to air. The show aired anyway, with a box at the bottom of the screen updating viewers that Melinda Duckett's body had been found at her grandparents' home.

In November 2006, Duckett's parents, Bethann and William Gerald Eubank, filed suit against CNN and Nancy Grace in the Lake County Florida Judicial Circuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit claims the television show solicited an unsuspecting and emotionally unstable Duckett to appear under false pretenses. It alleges the show lured Duckett with promises and representations that her appearance would inform the public her child was missing and assist in generating tips. And it alleges there was a plan in place to surprise Duckett with accusations and verbal assaults intending to intimate that she murdered her child.

The legal theory behind the case is that Grace's aggressive questioning pushed Duckett over the edge, and that her producers had specific knowledge that Duckett was emotionally fragile to begin with. In 2007, the case was moved from the Florida state court into a federal district court, based on a jurisdictional issue. Despite the change of forum, the key issue remains whether Florida's wrongful death statute was violated. In an ironic turn, last month lawyers for Grace and CNN unsuccessfully argued to keep Grace's deposition from being videotaped, worried that the deposition might be leaked to the media -- which could then "cut and splice" and manipulate her words to alter their meaning.

The lawsuit has highlighted issues of media responsibility weighed against the talk show industry's right to free speech. But this is far from a case of first impression, and the issues raised are hardly new.

In 1995 Jonathan Schmitz (pictured left) shot and killed openly gay Scott Amedure, hunting him down two days after Amedure professed a secret crush on him during a taping of the Jenny Jones show. As the prosecutor in the criminal trial of the case, I kept up with developments in the civil trial. I watched a large portion of it after the Amedure family sued Warner Brothers, Jenny Jones and the Jenny Jones show alleging negligence and improper screening of the emotionally unstable Schmitz. Under oath in the civil trial, Jones admitted that the show didn't want Schmitz to know in advance that his admirer was a man.

A jury awarded $25 million to the Amedure family in a verdict called "chilling" by the defense and "a blow for freedom" by the plaintiffs. The verdict was later reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which found that the Jenny Jones show had no duty to protect Amedure and no duty to anticipate and prevent an act of murder by Schmitz. Strangely enough, I was interviewed by Nancy Grace, then a Court TV anchor, several times after the verdict in criminal trial which followed the civil trial.

The cause of action in the lawsuit against Nancy Grace is different than in the Jenny Jones case. In the Duckett case, the alleged wrong-doing is the intentional infliction of emotional distress, rather than a negligence cause of action like that alleged by the Amedure suit. One key aspect remains the same: a celebrity and her show are the subjects of a lawsuit brought after a guest meets a violent death in the aftermath of an exploitive and humiliating on-air confrontation.

A CNN spokesman says that Nancy Grace and the show the show were providing a vital public service, bringing attention to the case for the greater good of finding Trenton Duckett. Other defenders of Grace's confrontational on-air style argue that perhaps Duckett killed herself out of guilt for killing her child rather than humiliation in an exploitive interview. They allege that Duckett went on the show willingly, and that Grace had the right to ask those questions and dig for the truth. Those critical of the ambush interview technique argue that maybe Duckett committed suicide because she was insane with grief, and Grace drove her over the edge.

Humiliating a guest for the entertainment of a nation is the key ingredient in the volatile formula of talk show amusement, devoured in millions of living rooms every day. Since TV is a mass-entertainment medium, networks have a huge incentive to satisfy their audiences' appetites. There's no shortage of participants who willingly agree to appear on sensationalist and tawdry shows. Time after time, we've seen people compromise their reputations and quality of life to be on TV. Do those who are so eager for their 15 minutes of fame ever realize it could kill them? Perhaps the saddest commentary of all is the viewing audience's seemingly insatiable appetite for cruel and sadistic voyeurism.

And the biggest irony of all? Now the ever talking head, Nancy Grace, has become the story.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Anonymous said...

Irony indeed. I couldnt believe when they aired that show anyway while putting that news feed that Melinda had killed herself. She is a cow a blowhard and a vile person.

And nobody will ever truly know what happened to Trenton. You can speculate all you want, but you will never know.

I find it ironic how she always sides with the men in these disappearances. First Josh Duckett, and now that Ronald Cummings. And she just about spits her words out at the girls.

Anonymous said...

That email was sent by Melinda, it was proven. Also Melinda had a really bad, probing local TV interview the day before the one with Nancy Grace, are they to blame too? No one talks about that. Melinda killed her son, she could not handle the fact that people were looking at her as the killer not at Josh. What mother of a missing child throws all her childs things in the garbage? They hang on to every last link to their child. Melinda is a killer and her family should get nothing.

Donna Pendergast said...

I'm not advocating for or against the lawsuit nor in favor of Melinda. As a prosecutor I look to the evidence and at this point the evidence suggests that the child is dead and that Melinda is responsible. I do have a problem with talk show ambushes ever since the Jenny Jones debacle and I do have great concern over what passes as entertainment on TV

Anonymous said...

This was a terrific piece--and the kind of fare I look for on this blog. I appreciated this post all the more because it was written by Ms. Pendergast, who comes at the issue with unique insight and expertise. Only she could have written it, IMO. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:13, You donr KNOW anything. Nobody ever will unless Melinda gave Trenton away.

Nancy DisGrace is to blame for that.

piper said...

It was a telephone interview! Melinda Duckett stayed on the line willingly. Nancy Grace did not attach the phone to Melinda's ear and mouth. Melinda could have disconnected the call at any time.

It's Nancy's job (and her show). She can voice her opinion but you don't have to listen; or in this case, stay on the line.

Nancy Grace is not to blame for Melinda Duckett's death.

Paralegal Sandy said...

In my opinion Nancy is a little over the top with aggression and intimidation. She is just plain rude to people.
I also agree that she treats the men more dignified than she does the women. But I thought it was kind of ironic when Ron Cummings and his gang got tangled up in a big ball of mess after she sugar coated him so much and degraded Haliegh's Mom the way she did.
I was born in Macon Georgia just as she was and it upsets me that she is giving southern hospitality a bad name the way she does.
There are three shows back to back that usually discuss the same thing, the other two tell the same stories without crucifying people. It's ok though. It makes her look worse than the people she is cutting down. But it is true that it's her job, it's a role she plays for the people who like the way she blasts some people to entertain others.

Soobs said...

Nancy Grace is nothing more than a media whore. Her "show" does NOT "probe for the facts." And I find it the height of irony, that she didn't want her depo to be taped, because she's aware that sound bites can be cut and spliced to add sensationalism. No kidding! She does it all the time.

She's worse than the Jenny Jones story. At least Jenny got on the stand and stated that she was mortified. Nancy will never admit to being mortified by her own behavior. And I blame every person that watches that crap she calls a show.

California Girl said...

If Nancy Grace were a man there would be no problem with her or the show. Society still wants to do witch hunts on women who speak up.

Frank said...

My name is Frank Amedure. Eldest brother of Scott Amedure. As of 2008, as I understand it, there has been 7 deaths related to Talk Shows and or reality tv. I am on who has lived the after math of what can and does happen. It can impact a family and friends life significantly, and lasts for many years. Here I am about 15 years later, still broken from the events of all that had happened to Scott, my family and our friends after the murder, the 2 murder trials and the civil trial and the appeal process. To this day I still hear and see talk about it on local TV advertisements from Geoffrey Fieger’s law firm.

If I had the talent to write a book, I would as the world should realize how big of a problem this is. Valid Informed Consent and screening is the issue here, not freedom of speech. Taking responsibility. If I told you the water was cold, and I knew it was very hot, and I told you to put your hand in it and you were badly burned, it would be at least partly my fault. I'm still angry. Life will never be the same. Son was harrassed by kids in grade school about gay issues. I think my whole family is still a mess and will never live it out.

Frank said...

7 deaths related to TV TALK or Reality TV.

Frank said...

I suppose this is in addition to the 7 aforementioned deaths.

Soobs said...

I still haven't found a talk show, or reality television, that is worth my time.

And Geoffrey Fieger is a horrid human being. And a media whore.

Frank, I'm sincerely sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

There is an excellant website on the MELINDA DUCKET case. Amazing information,investigation and documentation. Including pic's of the so called porn tape and who Melinda's co-star was....none other than Joshua Duckett himself.
Was It Really Worth It??

Maytruthprevail said...

I'd like to comment on the Nancy Grace show and how she presented Melinda Duckett: Melinda was the "chum" for the shark eating frenzy that ensued. Nancy called in all her "experts" to cut up Melinda into tiny pieces and feed it to the public. But Nancy Grace herself was FED wrong information: The cut screen "a 10 inch slit" which was a 10 x 32 x 10 inch flap, not a slit.
The car seat was sold: NOT, didn't sell, and Melinda had 3 car seats. The sonogram in the trash - the damning piece of evidence - was NOT even a sonogram. It was a photograph of a monitor screen, and look closely. It also has the forearm, the hand and the finger pointing at the image on the monitor. Melinda had ALL her sonograms, including the one shown on the monitor, in her meticulously kept Baby Book. How easy it would have been for the abductor to toss that picture into the trash around the dumpster, not even in the bag, but outside. Nancy Grace's producer Stephen Watts reported on Trenton's room, but I gave him an F on his homework because he was peering into Melinda's bedroom in the back of the apartment, not the front. Nancy Grace quizzed Josh Duckett on two pieces of porn, the video and the still picture. Josh was so surprised! But as stated above Josh was the leading male role in the video. The still picture of the multi-tasking mother was circulated and Josh stated on Nancy Grace that he was almost 100% sure it was Trenton. This same picture was recently circulated stating that it was Katie Tagle and her son Wyatt that was murdered by his father. It isn't either woman. It is a model named Mes. Nancy Grace talked about Melinda's psychological problems. Melinda had two: Josh Duckett and Carla Massero. They were her psychological problems. Melinda was bakeracted because of a Lie. A Lie told by Josh because "he was mad at her" and tried to get custody of Trenton to NOT pay child support but have Melidna pay HIM child support. Everything was predicated on that lie. Another piece of mis-information was that Melinda was fighting for custody in a bitter divorce. That was not true. Melinda was awarded child support to begin February 15, 2006, Melinda was awarded SOLE custody with Josh having visitation only, on May 26, 2006 and Melinda paid for and filed for divorce on June 12, 2006. All Josh had to do was sign. Josh stated that he was not late on his child support, but he missed May and June, only paying Feb, Mar and Apr. Then he was served on July 3, 2006 for contempt of non payment and also the divorce papers (service had been attempted numerous times before, but he was not around. On July 3, 2006 Carla accepted sub service). She must have been pretty angry to discover that Melinda included alimony on top of child support which would have been over $1,000 per month. No wonder that evening the email was sent. It's interesting to note that just minutes after that email was sent from Josh (NO RESIDUE WAS EVER FOUND ON MELINDA'S HARD DRIVE) a short message was sent to a friend Cierra Bacon from the same myspace. Why would Melinda send a message to Josh's friend? And why if Melinda knew all Josh's passwords as he stated on Nancy Grace, would she click on "forgot password" like he also stated.

And another thing to consider, why is everyone so sure that Melinda committed suicide? Why would Melinda leave a note to her grandparents "Laying down for a quick nap, I'll eat when I get up". Then take her grandfather's 50 year old shotgun that hadn't been fired in over 20 years, using birdshot that was just as old, wilst her brand new 20 gauge shotgun, was accessible and loaded in the back seat of her car where she left the suicide notes on the center console? Why would she leave that yellow sticky note on the kitchen counter instead of the suicide notes? And why were there two shots?

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