In Oxygen’s Injustice with Nancy Grace, Grace promises to investigate “cases that inspire other victims to believe it ain’t over yet. Somebody still cares.” In other words, Grace is reprising her self-appointed role of “voice of the victim,” and presumably ― Grace says the show will focus on wrongful accusations and botched investigations ― she’s finally including wrongly convicted people within that definition. If so, it’s a big step for Grace, who historically has treated people like me as monsters.
I first learned of Grace’s new show when Ryan Ferguson, a friend and fellow exoneree, tweeted, “Lol @oxygen, literally could not have chosen a worse person to discuss wrongful convictions. She, prosecutors like her, & that incompetent garbage she spews from her lips are the reason wrongful convictions happen. Akin to having child molester talk about why molestation is bad.”
Ryan spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And like me, he got to experience injustice in the most personal way. Exonerees are some of the loudest advocates for due process and defendants’ rights. We have lived through the nightmare of a rush to judgment and a wrongful conviction, and we strive to ensure that others are spared that tragedy and trauma. Our shared experience has not only shaken our faith in the justice system, and undermined our trust that the law is fair; it has also given us unique insights into changes that need to occur. This exoneree community cares deeply about injustice, and we deeply distrust Nancy Grace with bearing that torch.
In his review of Grace’s 2004 book, Objection!, professor David E. Wilkes of the University of Georgia’s School of Law summarizes her modus operandi: she “relentlessly heaps scorn on, and endeavors to undermine, the constitutional protections afforded criminal defendants,” she “demonizes persons charged with crime,” and she “loathes and is incapable of understanding the indispensable role of the defense attorney in our criminal justice system.” In all her work, she “pop[s] off with shoot-from-the-hip condemnations and pronouncements without doing any research.”
Yep. That’s my experience.
It’s also been the experience of leaders within the innocence movement. I reached out to Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, for comment.
“I’ve had two experiences with Nancy Grace,” Brooks says. “One of them was 20 years ago when she was first starting out. We had this huge case in San Diego, the Westerfield trial, where this little girl was abducted in her bedroom and then was found out in the desert, murdered. Nancy Grace came to San Diego. She asked me to be on her show and I remember her calling for the death penalty for this guy who hadn’t yet been convicted of anything. It was just such reactionary nonsense.”
Brooks, by contrast, is against the death penalty. In his 30 years doing criminal defense work, he’s freed 30 innocent people from prison and reversed one unjust death sentence.
“My next experience was with one of my clients,” Brooks continues. “Ken Marsh had been exonerated and the San Diego district attorney agreed that he should be released from prison, but that evidently wasn’t enough for Nancy Grace. She still attacked him. On her show, she read from testimony at the preliminary hearing that had been disavowed and proven false. She’s not interested in details and facts. She just wants a sensationalized story. I’ve never taken her seriously as a news person. She’s the absolute wrong person for this show.”
Nancy Grace is a sensationalist, and she frequently has a tenuous relationship with facts. But the real reason she’s the wrong person for this moment is because she has a deeply problematic view of what injustice even is. The first episode of her new show illustrates this well.
It tells the story of the brutal murder of Grace’s friend, Pamela Vitale. Two-thirds of the episode is dedicated to rationalizing the investigators’ initial, erroneous focus on Vitale’s innocent husband, Daniel Horowitz (though Grace professes to have always believed in Horowitz’s innocence). The last third of the episode demonizes the actual murderer, 16-year-old Scott Dyleski.
In other words, she defends the mistakes made by investigators who targeted an innocent, bereaved husband and came ever so close to arresting him. And she demonizes as “pure evil” a 16-year-old who she would see locked away for the rest of his life without any hope for rehabilitation.
She has it exactly backwards. In a show titled Injustice, she should be critiquing the retributive instinct and hysteria that lead to a rush to judgment and prosecutorial overreach. She should be questioning the scope, motivations, and severity of our carceral state. Rather than endorsing the investigator’s notion that there is a “normal” way for the spouse of a murder victim to behave, she should be scrutinizing the investigative “tunnel vision” that she accepts as a necessity.
We need to be having a conversation about dismantling our retributive and ineffective system, and replacing it with models of restorative justice, championed by people like Jennifer Thompson. As a result of a faulty investigation and identification process, Jennifer mistakenly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who broke into her home and raped her. Ronald spent 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit until DNA evidence exonerated him and identified the true rapist. After Ronald was released, Jennifer met with him and asked for his forgiveness. Exhibiting tremendous grace, he forgave her. The two of them wrote a book together called Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. Since then, Jennifer has been a tireless advocate for building relationships between offenders and victims and repairing the harm done by crime.
That’s what an inspiring “voice of the victim” sounds like. If Nancy Grace has been the voice of anything, she’s been the voice of unchecked outrage. And it’s done tremendous harm to the media landscape surrounding our justice system. But I believe people can change, can learn from their mistakes ― even Nancy Grace.
Showing compassion for victims is not mutually exclusive with upholding the presumption of innocence for the accused and the goal of rehabilitation for the guilty. I could not be more thrilled if Grace used this new show as an opportunity to finally learn this important lesson.