The Avenger

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Mark Hill / CNN / AP

You could have watched the July 5 Casey Anthony verdict on another outlet besides HLN. But that would have been like watching election returns on ESPN. Other channels covered the trial, but it was HLN (like TIME, a Time Warner company) that owned the case and the ratings, thanks largely to its tabloid Torquemada, Nancy Grace.

The network that was once CNN Headline News became Caylee Headline News, capturing the trial's sad spectacle and inflaming the bloodlust. At some points, HLN outdrew every other cable-news network, including first-place Fox. And when a Florida jury found Anthony, 25, not guilty of murder in the 2008 death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, it was HLN, with anchor and former prosecutor Grace, that cried injustice the loudest.

Grace's sneering analysis on HLN had a plain subtext: Anthony did it, and retribution was due. (Maybe not even subtext: HLN's coverage was branded "Justice for Caylee," with pictures of the sweet-faced toddler haunting its graphics.) Grace was almost taunting toward "Tot Mom," as she had dubbed the defendant. After the verdict, Grace decried that Caylee's death "will go unavenged." Her description of the girl read like a true-crime paperback: Caylee was "found just 15 houses from where Tot Mom puts her head on the pillow every night, her body decomposed, nothing but skeleton, gnawed on by animals ... Little Caylee, thrown away like she was trash."

The ratings triumph of HLN and Grace is proof that in trial-TV today — much like in prime-time cable news — there is no penalty for taking sides. Viewers may want the facts, but many also want to hear their judgments echoed passionately. Grace gives them that in scolding fury and black leather. Let everyone else cover the American justice system; Grace covers the American vengeance system.

After the verdict, Grace's take was plain: How did this monster go free? "I cannot give any other explanation," HLN host Jane Velez-Mitchell told her, "other than human beings are not rational." It wasn't just HLN that seemed to presume guilt; on ABC, George Stephanopoulos said that "jaws dropped" in the studio at the verdict. Combined with the seeming collapse of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the shock showed a press quick to jump to conclusions, if not about actual guilt, then at least about guilty verdicts.

Will anyone lose readers or viewers in the long run for premature judgment? Doubtful. In the short run, even less so. A guilty verdict would have given the story closure (at least until any appeals). But not guilty? There is no recourse — and therefore, the grievance, anguish and recriminations will never end.

After another notorious acquittal, O.J. Simpson's, it seemed like two Americas, black and white, had seen two different trials. With Anthony's, the two Americas were those who watched on TV and those who sat in the jury box. Whoever or whatever you believe killed Caylee, the prosecution didn't present a compelling-enough factual case, whereas Grace and her guests spent months whipping up an emotional case: lurid stories of lying, pole-dancing Casey; heartbreaking video of baby Caylee; sickening descriptions of the girl's death and disfigurement.

Grace can still argue that case, and her retribution engine has fuel for months, her target not just Anthony or her lawyers but the very idea of legal defense. The night of the verdict, her guest Dr. Drew Pinsky declared about defense attorneys, "The truth doesn't really matter to them. What matters to them is proven vs. not proven." Grace replayed the Anthony lawyers' celebratory champagne toast as if it were murder footage. "I'm not a preacher," she said — sounding like a preacher — "but there's something wrong with that ... Somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight."

And tomorrow night, and the next. That's the useful thing about the devil: his outrages are myriad, his hide is slippery, and he knows no statute of limitations. The verdict on Casey Anthony is in. But Nancy Grace's prosecution is just beginning.

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