March 28, 2005 12:00 PM

At age 20, Nancy Grace thought she knew where her life was headed: Engaged to her college sweetheart, she was set to become a high school English teacher and raise children. Then, on a hot summer afternoon just months before the marriage, horror struck. Her fiancé, Keith Griffin, just 24, was shot to death in a mugging. “It was like the world exploded,” says Grace, who reacted with shock and disbelief, “and there was nothing left.”

Today, Grace, 45, on the bed of her Manhattan apartment, breaks into tears recounting that devastating day in 1980. “It’s been a long time,” says Grace. “But it’s still very close to the surface.”

That unspent anger and hurt—and the empathy for victims that followed—sent Grace in an entirely different direction: to law school, then to work as a criminal prosecutor; following that a job as a legal commentator for Court TV; and, starting last month, to a high-profile spot as host of her own week-night CNN Headline News program about legal affairs. Confrontational and opinionated, Grace has her fans, but she’s also earned scorn from critics who fault her for almost always siding with the prosecution. “I have a concern,” says Jill Geisler of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, “about people who have a national platform passing judgment before a jury does.”

During Court TV’s coverage of the Laci Peterson case, for instance, Grace pounded away daily at the mounting evidence against Peterson’s husband, Scott. It was a compelling argument (and good TV) and, not surprisingly, it enraged Scott’s father, Lee, who phoned CNN’s Larry King Live one night in April 2003 to berate her. “You’ve crucified my son on the national media,” he said. “And you should be ashamed of [that].” She offers no apologies—nor, she says, does she mind the up to 200 hate letters and e-mails she receives each week. “It doesn’t really bother me,” says Grace, who rarely responds to the mail. “It means people are watching and listening to what I’m saying.”

The thick skin predates the TV makeup; during 10 years as an assistant district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., she won nearly 100 criminal convictions, never losing a case (with only one being overturned) and earning the nickname Amazin’ Grace. “She had no fear,” says Atlanta defense attorney Renée Regard Rockwell, a friend, “and a lot of people would just cave in because it was her trying the case.” Her bareknuckle courtroom tactics won her few friends among defense attorneys and defendants. “My windshield was broken so many times I had the number of Mr. Glass memorized,” says Grace. “But I wasn’t prosecuting criminals to make friends.”

It was not a career she ever imagined growing up as the third child of a bank teller mother and a railway worker father on the outskirts of Macon, Ga. “The most traumatic thing that happened to me was not making the basketball team,” says Grace, who was a freshman studying Shakespeare at Valdosta State College when she spotted Keith Griffin, a handsome student on a baseball scholarship. “I just knew we were meant to be together,” says Grace. In short order they were engaged and planning to elope. “I even had my wedding dress,” she says. “Everything was set.”

But then on Aug. 6,1980, Griffin was buying soft drinks for his coworkers when he was shot five times by a parolee who stole his wallet containing just $34. In shock, Grace dropped out of school, moved into her parents’ house and put her life on hold. “We didn’t know if she was going to make it,” says her mother, Elizabeth, 73. “She didn’t do anything but cry all day and night.”

She did go to court and sit through the trial of the man—still serving a life sentence—who killed her fiancé. And rather than giving up on life, Grace emerged with a new sense of purpose: putting criminals away. “I wanted to right wrongs,” she says. “I wanted to correct injustices.”

It took three years of law school, but when she finally landed a job as a prosecutor and stepped into the courtroom, she felt liberated. “I felt like a bird escaping a cage,” she says. “I had found my voice.”

One person impressed with that voice was Court TV founder Steven Brill, who was so taken with her performance on a 1996 panel discussion that he hired her, first to appear on a show with O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran and later as one of the network’s anchors. Brill has now joined her list of critics, telling The New York Times that she “contributes to the overall scream culture” of cable TV. It’s no wonder that at the end of the day what she craves most is the quiet of her Manhattan apartment (she lives alone but has a steady boyfriend she won’t identify), where she turns off the TV, savors the silence and reads. To truly relax, she regularly visits her parents, still living in the Macon home her grandfather built.

Would she ever go back to the courtroom? Probably not, but Grace knows not to be too firm about her future. “Plans never turn out the way you think,” she says. “I got a very different life, a wonderful life, and I’m happy.”

By Thomas Fields-Meyer. Steve Erwin in New York City

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