COVID delays trial in Grinstead murder case

Ryan Alexander Duke is charged with the murder of Tara Grinstead.

Ryan Alexander Duke is charged with the murder of Tara Grinstead.

The trial for a man accused of killing a South Georgia teacher and former beauty queen has been delayed due to a rise in the coronavirus, according to a judge’s clerk and attorneys.

Ryan Alexander Duke is scheduled for an October trial in the 2005 death of Tara Grinstead. Grinstead, 30, was reported missing in October 2005 when she failed to show up to teach her Irwin County High School history classes.

Cobb County attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who represents Duke, said the decision to delay the trial was made during a conference call Wednesday afternoon with the judge and prosecutors. A clerk in Judge Bill Reinhardt’s office said an order had not yet been signed, but a hearing scheduled for Tuesday in the case has been postponed.

“We’re concerned about the positive (COVID-19) rates in Irwin County,” Merchant said Thursday. “It just didn’t seem like the right thing to do right now. We all want closure, but the right way and the safe way. It seems like the responsible thing to do.”

Tara Grinstead

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Merchant said the judge suggested a possible March date for the trial.

Grinstead was last seen alive at a party on Oct. 22, 2005. When she failed to show up in her classroom two days later, a massive search was launched to find her, and it became a national news story. The reward for information grew, but no trace of Grinstead was found.

More than 11 years later, GBI investigators turned their attention to Duke. After questioning him for several hours, Duke was arrested. He confessed, according to the GBI investigators. But later, he changed his story and said he didn’t kill Grinstead, but was involved in covering up her death.

In March, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Duke is entitled to state funds for his defense, overruling a decision by an Irwin County trial judge who found that he could not receive such funds because he is represented by pro bono counsel — private attorneys representing him at no cost. In preparing Duke’s defense, they had been denied funds to pay expert witnesses and an investigator.

Duke was represented by a public defender before he retained Merchant, her husband John Merchant and Atlanta lawyer John Gibbs, all of whom agreed to work for free.

Bo Dukes, who isn’t related to Duke, was also charged in the case.

In March 2019, Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison for concealing Grinstead’s death. Dukes initially claimed he didn’t know anything about the disappearance and death of Grinstead. Months later, Dukes confessed. He didn’t kill Grinstead but helped dispose of the body, according to evidence at his trial.

— Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.