Sunday, August 26, 2007

CNN's lawyers defend Duckett mom interview

Stephen Hudak

Sentinel Staff Writer

August 8, 2007


Lawyers for CNN and talk-show host Nancy Grace defended the caustic commentator's grilling of Melinda Duckett a day before her suicide, urging a federal judge to throw out her family's lawsuit.

Lawyer Judith Mercier cast Grace, a former prosecutor, as a journalist devoted to finding Duckett's missing 2-year-old son, Trenton.

"The law does not permit people to recover money from reporters who ask routine questions while covering ongoing stories of national significance to the public," Mercier wrote in a brief that assailed the family's lawsuit as "misguided."

Melinda Duckett's adoptive parents, William "Jerry" and Beth Eubank, sued the cable giant and Grace in November, accusing them of pushing Duckett, 21, to suicide with an aggressive interview that their lawyers characterized as an "ambush."

They also seek damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and for misappropriating Melinda Duckett's image and interview in ensuing broadcasts.

The young mother emerged as the prime suspect in her son's disappearance after she killed herself at her grandparents' home in The Villages on Sept. 8, the day the taped interview was broadcast.

Trenton was reported missing about 9 p.m. Aug. 27 from his bed in his mother's apartment in Leesburg. Police officially list the toddler as missing. His third birthday is Friday.

Grace's lawyer said the lawsuit focuses on the mother's suicide and not "the real center of this terrible story," the missing boy.

Mercier said Melinda Duckett appeared on the program voluntarily and that Grace grew more persistent "only when the mother's answers were less than forthcoming . . ."

She said courts have repeatedly upheld a journalist's right to use "aggressive and abrasive [interview] tactics in an attempt to ferret out information from reluctant individuals."

Kara Skorupa, the Eubanks' lawyer, could not be reached for comment.

Mercier, who also asked U.S. District Court Judge William Terrell Hodges to schedule an oral hearing, said the lawsuit could "severely chill" media efforts to find missing children if it stops reporters from asking tough, aggressive questions.

She submitted a DVD and a transcript of the broadcast as evidence.

In the fist-pounding interview, Grace challenged Melinda Duckett's reasons for refusing to take a polygraph test and chastised her for providing vague answers about her itinerary the day her son disappeared.

Duckett had said she had been shopping with the boy but would not name the specific stores.

But Grace pressed on.

She pointed out that a store surveillance camera might have captured video of someone watching, following or lurking behind the young mother and her son.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at or 352-742-5930.
The last photo ran on page B2 of Local.

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