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.
TROUBLE FROM THE START
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.
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 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.
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.