NEW YORK — Nancy Grace may now be the most polarizing host in cable television news — and that's saying something.
The former prosecutor took up the cause of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony when the child went missing and spent hour after hour on the case as mother Casey was charged with her daughter's murder. Grace harbored nothing but disdain for "tot mom," as she called Anthony. With Grace in the lead studio chair, coverage of Anthony's acquittal on Tuesday brought HLN the largest audience in its 29-year-history.
Grace's audience of nearly 3 million people that night was also a personal high. She brings the same in-your-face opinionated approach to legal news that several Fox News Channel and MSNBC personalities bring to politics, and viewers strongly endorsed it. Yet her assertion that the Anthony jury was "kooky" and post-verdict statement that "the devil is dancing tonight" seemed over the top even by Grace standards, offering fresh material for both those who cheer her advocacy and others who find her overbearing.
One of the jurors in the Anthony case, Elizabeth Ford, told ABC News that the 51-year-old Grace was not fit for television.
"I think a lot of things she says fuel the fire and they're based on nothing," Ford said. "I'm obviously against making decisions based on just speculation and opinion."
Back down? You don't know Nancy. After one of Anthony's lawyers said the verdict should send a message to those who engage in "media assassination" — remarks considered largely aimed at Grace — she said she wasn't concerned. "I don't like them much either," she said on a CNN blog.
"When I take a stand, I don't expect people to like what I have to say," Grace, who declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press, told ABC News. "But I do hold myself up to the standard of trying to tell the truth. And if they don't like it or if it hurts their feelings, there's nothing I can do about that. But I can tell you this much: That mom is guilty."
Grace's career was fueled by a personal fire. Her fiancÉ, college student Keith Griffin, was murdered in 1979 when Grace was 19. The tragic crime caused her to abandon her plans to teach English and turn to law. She wound up working in the Atlanta-area district attorney's office, often on cases involving women or children. But the Georgia courts also cited her for prosecutorial misconduct on one or two cases.
Telegenic and not reluctant to take stands, she became a popular television figure with legal experts in demand in the post-O.J. Simpson era.
Her prime-time HLN show concentrates on criminal cases with a laser-like focus, particularly cases involving children; she has twin pre-school children herself.
This past week, Grace's impact could be seen in the streets outside the Orlando, Fla., courtroom where Anthony was tried, where dozens of women reacted angrily to the verdict. Some held signs in tribute of Caylee, whose face is kept alive in photographs repeatedly shown on Grace's program.
But cross Grace at your own peril. She can bluntly — rudely, many viewers perceive — cut you off on her show if you disagree with her. Grace's prosecutorial mindset can convict people in the court of opinion even if they aren't in a real courtroom, with Anthony a perfect illustration. Most Americans are happy to see Grace on TV, "because she's not hiding in the back of our car with piano wire and those cold, black eyes," HBO's Bill Maher joked.
"I feel like I owe the nation community service for having hired her and put her on television," said Steve Brill, founder of the now-defunct Court TV. "She's a monster." At Court TV, anchors and commentators were instructed to explain the legal process to viewers but not opine on guilt or innocence, he said.
Dan Abrams, ABC legal analyst, said Grace has never pretended to be a journalist and is instead an activist-analyst. During the Anthony trial, Abrams and Grace discussed the case during regular joint appearances on "Good Morning America."
"I often wholeheartedly disagree with Nancy's analysis and, as I'm watching her, sometimes I'm rolling my eyes," Abrams said. "That said, I respect the fact that she's transparent with the viewers about how she feels. There's no mistaking what Nancy Grace's take is on a story. She may be wrong. She may be unfair. But I think that the viewers are smart enough to make that decision about whether they agree."
She's been an important advocate on behalf of crime victims and children's' rights, keeping up the momentum on cases that might otherwise have been forgotten, said Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, a California organization that develops school curriculum to teach children how to combat abuse.
Grace strongly went after the alleged rapists in the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case. The accusations turned out to be false and all three lacrosse players were declared innocent. Grace also devoted a lot of time to the Natalee Holloway case and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping.
But Fitzgerald said Grace often crosses the line by being too one-sided. "Everyone is guilty," she said.
Grace last year settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the parents of Melinda Duckett, a 21-year-old mother of a missing son, who committed suicide in 2006 the day a pre-taped interview with Grace was about to air. The lawsuit accused Grace of inflicting emotional distress on Duckett with her questions and saying the woman was hiding something because she did not take a lie detector test. Police later said Duckett was the prime suspect in the 2-year-old boy's disappearance.
Ilene Farmer, a lawyer in Baltimore's public defender's office, said Grace has undermined respect for the jury system the way she has spoken out against the Anthony verdict. She said she's worried that someone who disagrees with the verdict, whipped up by Grace's disgust, will harm some of the jurors.
ABC's Terry Moran on "Nightline" asked Grace if some of what she does could be perceived as unethical.
"The day that it is unethical to care about the murder of a 2-year-old little girl who ends up duct-taped and thrown into a swamp is the day that I, too, will retire and rue the justice system," she said.
She said on the CNN blog that she'd like to see Anthony admit guilt. "Other than that, I'm not in the business of forgiving," she said. "That's up to the Lord. I'm just relieved that I believe, that I know, Caylee is in a place where her mother can't hurt her anymore."
HLN, the former CNN Headline News, struck gold by following Grace's interest in the Anthony case and giving full coverage to the trial. Years ago that would have been a niche for Court TV, but that network was converted to TruTV and largely shows flashy nonfiction programming.
HLN isn't letting go until every ounce of interest is squeezed from the case. Its executives largely scrapped the network's weekend schedule to run nearly wall-to-wall Anthony material, much of it hosted by Grace.
Scot Safon, HLN's chief executive, said he was very comfortable with how Grace presented the case. The only thing Grace would have done different, she said in the CNN blog, "is put on my hip boots and gone down to Florida and looked for Caylee myself."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org