Authorities in Leesburg, Fla., may be close to naming a missing toddler's mother as a suspect in the boy's disappearance despite the mother's suicide after a grilling by broadcaster Nancy Grace.
Capt. Ginny Padgett of the Leesburg Police Department said Melinda Duckett, 21, "has not been labeled a suspect. However, we are focusing more on her at this time."
Police, aided by Florida state investigators and FBI agents, have searched for more than two weeks for 2-year-old Trenton Duckett after his mother told authorities she found his crib empty on the night of Aug. 27.
Melinda Duckett died last Friday from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound that her family blamed on media attention, particularly a grilling by Grace the day before.
Whatever the outcome of the case, some media critics believe Grace went too far in her interview.
"What's troubling to me," said Hub Brown, a professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communications, "is that when you're doing these interviews you have to balance whether you're doing harm to the people involved."
Grace, the former prosecutor and uncompromising victims' advocate, focused on where Duckett and her son had been the day before she reported the disappearance.
"Where were you?" asked Grace. "Why aren't you telling us where you were that day? You were the last person to be seen with him."
Duckett answered, "And we've already gone out and distributed fliers and spoken to ... "
"Right," Grace interrupted. "Why aren't you telling us and giving us a clear picture of where you were before your son was kidnapped?"
"Because," said Duckett, "I'm not going to put those kinds of details out."
Duckett: "Because I was told not to."
Grace then pressed even harder.
"Ms. Duckett, you are not telling us for a reason," she said. "What is that reason? You refuse to give even the simplest facts of where you were with your son before he went missing."
Brown, the Syracuse professor, said Grace's tactics are questionable.
"The prosecutorial stance that Nancy Grace is taking … it's not helping," he said. "It's not like she's going to get any information."
And it may even be more serious, he said.
"How is that questioning doing anything but making a person in a desperate situation feeling even more desperate?" Brown asked.
Police acknowledge that they, too, have had difficulty pinning down details of Duckett's whereabouts with her son on Aug. 26, the day before she told police her son's crib was empty and that the screen of a nearby window had been slashed. They have appealed for witnesses in an effort to reconstruct the movements of the mother and the son.
Duckett's grandfather Bill Eubank, in whose home the apparent suicide occurred, is quoted by The Associated Press as saying, "She wasn't one anyone ever would have thought of to do something like this."
He added, "Nancy Grace and the others, they just bashed her to the end."
But Duckett's ex-husband, Joshua Duckett, the missing boy's father, disagreed.
"At first, the media was rough on me, too," he said, "I don't feel the media was unfair to either side."
Leesburg police have searched Melinda Duckett's apartment, confiscating a computer, digital camera and personal notes, but would not comment on what those revealed, if anything. Nor would police comment on a report in the Leesburg Daily Commercial that Duckett bought a shotgun at a pawn shop the day before her son disappeared.
As they continue to search construction sites and other places in Leesburg, Padgett said police have not yet given up hope of finding the boy alive but have no specific leads. The suicide however, she said, has complicated the investigation.
A spokeswoman for Nancy Grace called the apparent suicide "a sad development."
Did Grace's interview cross any ethical line? In the modern media age, Brown said, it's hard to know.
"In cable television now, it's a shout fest, law of the jungle, survival of the loudest," he said. "It might make good television. It doesn't make good journalism."