It was a win for the First Amendment. The Georgia Supreme Court voted unanimously to toss out the gag order that’s been in place for a year in the high-profile Tara Grinstead case.
“A gag order like this one may be constitutionally permissible in exceptional circumstances, but the record here does not reveal circumstances sufficiently exceptional to warrant such a restraint,” Justice Keith R. Blackwell wrote in a ruling released Monday. “For that reason, we vacate the gag order.”
Gag orders are typically issued to prevent prejudice or bias during pre-trial publicity that could influence potential jurors. The initial gag order prevented potential witnesses from speaking about the case and sealed court records, but that order was later softened and records were unsealed.
Now, without a gag order, law enforcement officers may choose to speak publicly about the Grinstead case. And presumably additional information on the case should be more easily obtained.
In its 25-page ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court said the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided a case like this one. But nothing so far indicates the murder suspect, Ryan Alexander Duke, would not receive a fair trial, the ruling states.
“Here, although the record shows significant media interest in the case, it does not demonstrate any likelihood that persons to whom the modified gag order is directed would make prejudicial statements,” the opinion says. “We have reviewed the exhibits offered by Duke at the hearing to illustrate the nature and extent of media coverage, and we find no reports attributing inflammatory statements or prejudicial information to sources covered by the modified gag order.”
On Oct. 23, 2005, Grinstead was reported missing from her Ocilla home. The disappearance of the former beauty pageant queen and Irwin County High School teacher made national headlines, and her face appeared on billboards. The GBI took over the investigation and interviewed more than 200 people, but the case remained cold for more than 11 years.
Then, in February 2017, the GBI announced it followed up a tip in the case that led to an arrest. Duke, a former student of Grinstead’s, was charged with her murder.
Television cameras captured Duke at his first court appearance wearing a green and white jail jumpsuit, shackles and handcuffs. Days later, his attorneys requested and were granted a gag order by Judge Melanie Cross of the Tifton Judicial Circuit.
The sweeping order restrained “the prosecution, all law enforcement, the defendant, counsel for the defendant, potential witnesses, expert or other, court personnel and family members for both the defendant and alleged victim” from speaking publicly about the case.
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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News were the first media outlets to appeal the gag order, and a hearing was held in an Irwin County courtroom. During the hearing, attorney Lesli Gaither, representing the AJC and Channel 2, argued that the gag order was too broad and that extensive media coverage of the case was not enough to justify the order.
Cross agreed, in part. She ruled that current and former members of law enforcement are limited in speaking publicly about the case, but court hearings and other public records will not be sealed in the case. That ruling was also challenged, leading the state’s highest court to weigh in.
“Duke and the State fail to identify a single statement attributed to any person to whom the modified gag order applies that would be likely to prejudice Duke’s right to a trial by an impartial jury, and we cannot say that the record shows even a reasonable likelihood of prejudice sufficient to sustain a gag order,” the opinion concludes. “For that reason, the modified gag order is vacated.”
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