Nancy Grace (left) and Casey Anthony
05/27/2011 at 04:50 PM EDT
During opening statements of the Casey Anthony murder
trial, the prosecution wasted no time reminding jurors what the case was about: Prosecutors showed the last known photograph of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony
, followed by a jarring photo of the Florida toddler's skeletonized remains.
Sitting in the gallery, talk show host Nancy Grace gasped slightly, before dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. "It was horrific," Grace tells PEOPLE. "That instantly reminded everyone – including the jury – what's at stake in this case.
Grace, 51, has been a regular fixture in the courtroom, listening to the grisly testimony about the death and decomposition of Caylee. She says that becoming a mother to twins
Lucy and John David, now 3½, has changed her approach to crime stories.
"As a mother, I think about my children, who are close to the same age as Caylee was," she says. "And it hits me very hard. Before I had children, I thought I knew everything. Come to find out, I didn't know anything."
Grace often talks about the case on her self-titled talk show on the HLN network. From day one, she has been critical of Casey Anthony. "I was in Toys R Us with the twins recently, and suddenly I couldn't find John David," she recalls. "I freaked out. I started screaming, 'I can't find my baby!' So I can't understand how any mother would go for 31 days without reporting their daughter missing."
The defense has been openly critical of Grace, repeatedly calling her show "The Nancy Grace Entertainment Show." The criticism doesn't bother Grace. "They will do and say anything," she says simply.
But the outspoken Grace saves her harshest words for Casey Anthony, whom she calls "Tot Mom" even in casual conversation.
"She was a party girl, and now she's here in court dressed like an elementary school librarian," Grace says. 'You know what? We can see right through her."