South Georgia judge softens gag order in Tara Grinstead case

South Georgia judge softens gag order in Tara Grinstead case

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A banner with a faded picture of Tara Grinstead hangs outside the Irwin County Sheriff’s Office in Ocilla. (ALEXIS STEVENS/astevens@ajc.com)

A South Georgia judge has softened the gag order she signed in the Tara Grinstead homicide case. But the order will remain in place, according to the ruling issued Friday.

Current and former members of law enforcement are limited in speaking publicly about the case, Judge Melanie Cross of the Tifton Judicial Circuit wrote in her ruling. Court hearings and other public records will not be sealed in the case, Cross said.

Tara Grinstead was reported missing from her Ocilla home in October 2005. (AJC file photo) The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Grinstead, an Irwin County High School teacher, was reported missing from her Ocilla home in October 2005. Local police enlisted help from the GBI in the investigation, which remained a cold case for more than 11 years. In February, the GBI announced an arrest in the case. Ryan Alexander Duke, one of Grinstead’s former students, was charged with her murder.

Five days later, Cross signed a sweeping gag order in the case. Under the initial gag order, police, potential witnesses, court personnel and family members of both Grinstead and her alleged killer were barred from making statements about the case. A second man, Bo Dukes, was later charged with concealing the death of Grinstead.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News were the first media outlets to challenge the appeal. Other metro Atlanta, Macon and South Georgia media outlets also appealed the gag order. During a hearing last week, attorney Lesli Gaither, representing the AJC and Channel 2, argued that the gag order is too broad and that extensive media coverage of the case was not enough to justify the order.

“This Court’s Order is an attempt to protect the Defendant’s due process rights and right to a fair trial by restricting the release of prejudicial matters, as mandated by the cases of all of the parties,” Cross wrote in her 12-page ruling.

Law enforcement, the district attorney and his staff, Duke and his attorney are prohibited from discussing potential evidence in the case or “the character, credibility, reputation or criminal record” of the accused or any potential witness, according to the modified order. Grinstead’s family members now can speak publicly.

“We appreciate the clarity from the court, and we are evaluating whether to take any further step,” Gaither said Friday afternoon.

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