Crime

Judge cites media ‘feeding frenzy’ in ruling on gag order in Tara Grinstead slaying

GBI: Tara Grinstead murder suspect 'never on our radar screen'

GBI special agent in charge J.T. Ricketson took questions from the media after announcing Ryan Alexander Duke was arrested and charged with murder and burglary in the death of Irwin County High teacher Tara Grinstead, who had been missing 11 years
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GBI special agent in charge J.T. Ricketson took questions from the media after announcing Ryan Alexander Duke was arrested and charged with murder and burglary in the death of Irwin County High teacher Tara Grinstead, who had been missing 11 years

A south Georgia judge in the Tara Grinstead case issued a ruling Friday regarding a gag order in the case, slightly relaxing some of the conditions on who can speak publicly about the high-profile slaying.

The judge’s decision was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose attorneys, along with those from The Telegraph and other news outlets in the region, challenged the gag order, saying the measure was overly broad and that it restricted free speech.

Irwin Superior Court Judge Melanie B. Cross had said last week that she would, in the coming days, decide whether she would amend, lift or keep in place the gag order she had instituted last month.

In her ruling late Friday afternoon, she noted a media “feeding frenzy” upon the arrest last month of a suspect in Grinstead’s mysterious vanishing in 2005.

The judge’s decision states that until the case is decided, there should be no public comments made by anyone associated with the district attorney’s office, defense attorneys, court staff and current or former police officers who handled the case.

The ruling says anything having to do with the following cannot be discussed publicly:

▪ The character, credibility, reputation or criminal record of the accused or the identity of a witness or the expected testimony of a party or witness;

▪ The possibility of a plea of guilty to the offense charged;

▪ The existence of contents of any confession, admission or statement given by the accused or his refusal or failure to make a statement;

▪ The nature of physical evidence;

▪ Any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the accused.

What’s more, no proceedings in the case will be closed to the public unless a motion seeking closure is filed for some specific matter and a hearing is held.

Anyone who violates the order could face a contempt charge, and attorneys in the case could face disciplinary action by the State Bar of Georgia.

The judge’s initial order came on the heels of an arrest in the long-unsolved slaying. It barred prosecutors, defense lawyers, police officers and relatives of Grinstead and the two men now charged in her disappearance.

In court filings dated Feb. 28, Cross ordered that evidence in the case, including all pretrial motions, be sealed from public access until the case against Grinstead’s alleged killer, Ryan Duke, was concluded. She also ordered all hearings in the case to be held in private, out of public view.

She said in the order that there had already been extensive coverage of the case and that Duke’s Sixth Amendment rights might be jeopardized otherwise.

Duke, a former student of Grinstead’s, graduated from Irwin County High School in 2002, about three years before Grinstead went missing. He was charged with murder Feb. 23, more than 11 years after the teacher and former beauty queen’s disappearance.

Duke is accused of killing Grinstead on Oct. 22, 2005, in her home during a burglary, then moving her body. Other charges against him include aggravated assault, burglary and concealing a death.

He “willfully used his hands in an offensive manner to cause bodily harm,” an arrest warrant alleged.

On March 3, authorities charged Bo Dukes, a former classmate of Duke’s, with concealing a death, hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and tampering with evidence. In the days after Grinstead’s death, Dukes allegedly helped destroy her body, hiding her death to keep his friend Duke from being charged with murder, according to arrest warrants.

Joe Kovac Jr.: 478-744-4397, @joekovacjr

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