She glowered back at him and without missing a beat, spit back, "I hate liars!"
Biting back at Grace is risky business. But Grace, who's already a household name from her evening HLN program, knows her divisive, take-no-prisoners prosecutorial approach is what makes her a potential winner in the cutthroat world of syndicated court shows.
Dubbed "Swift Justice With Nancy Grace," the nationally syndicated show debuts locally Monday, Sept. 13, on the local Fox affiliate WAGA-TV at 2 p.m. weekdays.
"Swift Justice" is like other court shows in that Grace, a former Fulton County assistant district attorney, handles small-claims disputes along the lines of unpaid rent and damaged goods. The litigants agree to binding arbitration with the show picking up the tab, win or lose.
"It's been a great release for me to do cases like this," she said. "I like that we can help people. We can put them in parenting classes or drug rehab. As a prosecutor, the only tool I had was jail."
Visually, the show is nothing like "Judge Judy" or "The People's Court," the granddaddy of all court shows dating back to 1981. She dispenses with the black judge's robe, opting for sharp business attire. There's no bailiff and no gavel. (Her voice is her gavel.) She stands behind an oval glass desk and often moves around the studio.
During one case, Grace spontaneously walks off the set to retrieve a 2-year-old child from the green room. Later, she comforts the crying plaintiff with a box of tissues.
Each 30-minute episode includes one longer case in which the litigants are physically in the studio. Toward the end, she adjudicates smaller disputes where the plaintiffs and defendants are seen on giant monitors that serve as electronic witness stands connected via the Web. They are often in their own living rooms in cities all over the country.
Executive producer John Terenzio, who also produces "Judge Joe Brown," said the ubiquitousness of broadband and webcams make the remote cases feasible today compared to five years ago.
It's like we're modern versions of the old circuit riders," Grace said. "Those were judges who would ride all over the country to hear cases."
She also takes advantage of lie detector tests and expert witnesses to help flesh out cases. "I've brought in shrinks who specialize in various addictions. I've used handwriting analysis experts to prove a case," she said.
"Swift Justice" doesn't mean Grace is ending her evening HLN program, the highest-rated show on the Atlanta-based network. The workaholic mom, who married and had twins at age 48 in 2007 and splits her time between Atlanta and New York City, will simply do double duty.
"I put the twins first," she said. She has to tape "Swift Justice" only two or three days every other week, squeezing five or six episodes into a day's shoot (and 220 total for an entire year).
She said her parents often baby-sit the twins during the 40 days to 45 days she's at her studios at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Otherwise, she watches the kids during the day before going to HLN at night, whether she's in New York or Atlanta. Her husband, David Linch, is an investment banker.
"I come here and work like a madman," she said in her studio. "I don't even take a lunch break." (A shake will do while she peruses cases.)
Terenzio is well aware that Grace is not universally loved. "You love her, you hate her," he said. "Polarizing personalities are a good thing. You can see how intense she is. She's phenomenal!"
Joi Moore, a 26-year-old freelance writer from Smyrna, attended a taping of Grace's show this spring and found her warmer and lighter than she is on HLN, where she focuses heavily on missing children and murders. "Her night show focuses so much on violent crime. I think this is way easier for her to be more emotionally detached," Moore said.
Though Grace is known to support victims' rights, she said she never came into a case biased toward any one side. In fact, she said she frequently changes her mind once she hears the entire case: I call it exactly how I see it."
For instance, in one case, a woman accused an animal boarding company of starving her dog and contributing to his death. Grace began the case clearly favoring the plaintiff. But once Grace heard a dog expert and the plaintiff's overreaching testimony, she ended up cutting the boarding place owners more slack.
While she is aware she's on the clock, she won't stop questioning simply because of time. During a recent taping, she just kept asking questions until she felt she had enough answers to make a decision. She never told the director to stop the cameras , either. (That's what editors are for.)
But she still demands respect. When a defendant uttered "Yeah," she admonished her and forced to her to say, "Yes, ma'am." And she firmly asked a rock musician to pull the hair out of his eyes before she talked to him. "I never trust a witness," she drawled, "unless I look them in the eyes."
Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at New York-based Horizon Media, said the court show scene is crowded with at least 10 competitors. But if Grace can draw 3 million viewers a day, she has a shot at a second season. I wouldn't bet against her," he said.
And Grace is not at all fazed by insults thrust at her on the show, including that classy line: "You hate men!"
"Men always say that when I rule against them," she said, with a smirk. "It rolls off my back."
A SMALL SIDEBAR ON NANCY'S BOOK
If the real-life version of Nancy Grace isn't enough for her fans, she has created a thinly disguised version of herself in Hailey Dean in her two mystery novels, the first which came out last year.
Continuing in the vein of "writing what you know," Grace's latest novel, "Death on the D-List," (Hyperion, $25.99) focuses its eye on the nasty world of TV infotainment. There's a serial killer on the loose in New York killing off D-List female celebrities along the lines of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
"I was inspired by the TV industry," she said, "and I think I reflected it pretty well."
Dean was once a prosecutor with a perfect record - just like Grace. Dean still carries scars after her fiance was murdered - just like Grace. Dean is aggressive and opinionated about victims' rights - just like Grace. And Dean kills a murderous attorney with a dentist's drill bit in an act of self defense. That is pure fiction.
The book's ending would certainly amuse Oprah Winfrey and naturally sets up for a sequel.
For tickets to attend a taping of "Swift Justice With Nancy Grace," you can sign up at www.swiftjustice.com/tickets.
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