Ryan Alexander Duke, who is charged with murder in the Grinstead case, is escorted out after his motion hearings before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on Monday.HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Judge says he won’t agree yet to move trial in Tara Grinstead case

UPDATE: A trial date has been set for the man accused of killing a South Georgia teacher: April 1. But it’s not yet known whether the trial for Tara Grinstead’s accused murderer — which is expected to last a month — will stay in Irwin County. 

The possible venue change was one of several motions heard during a hearing Monday, which wrapped up around 1:30 p.m. Defense attorneys requested the trial be moved and Irwin prosecutors agreed. But Judge Bill Reinhardt said he isn’t prepared to agree to the venue change yet. 

Ryan Alexander Duke, charged with Grinstead’s murder, sat motionless in the courtroom. With short hair and clean-shaven, Duke looked drastically different than previous photos following his arrest. 

Reinhardt said the massive news coverage the case has gotten isn’t his concern. Instead, the issue is whether a fair jury can be seated in Irwin, a county of roughly 9,000. When Grinstead vanished from her Ocilla home in 2005, many in the community assisted in the search for her. 

In order to measure the attitudes of potential jurors, a questionnaire will be mailed to a sample jury pool, the judge said. On Dec. 14, attorneys for both sides will discuss the questions that will be included on the questionnaire. 

The change of venue was among the issues discussed in Monday’s motions hearing.  A motion that would’ve dropped some charges due to the statute of limitations was dropped by the defense attorneys before the hearing began. Neither side called witnesses. 

The majority of the motions needed no discussion in court because prosecutors and defense attorneys agree. But a handful were discussed, and Reinhardt says he will begin issuing his rulings later this week.

About 10 of Duke’s family members were seated on one side of the courtroom. Grinstead’s family members sat on the opposite side. 

Among other issues discussed Monday: Whether Duke’s indictment is too vague. The indictment states that Duke killed Grinstead with his hands. But defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant argued the alleged crime isn’t explained.

Merchant and her husband, John Merchant, have been representing Duke since August and took his case pro bono. In one motion, the Merchants requested funding from Irwin County to cover the cost of an investigator. 

“Help me understand why y'all are in private practice but still need public funds?” Reinhardt asked. 

Irwin District Attorney Paul Bowden said the county is not required to pay for an indigent’s defense.

In another motion, Merchant asked that the indictment not be read for the jury at trial. Reinhardt said he will deny the motion. 

“I don’t think it’s on solid legal ground,” the judge said. 

After the hearing, two deputies led Duke - who wore handcuffs and shackles - from the courthouse to a van to return to jail. He didn’t respond when asked if had any comment. 

Earlier story: More than 13 years after Tara Grinstead was reported missing — and more than a year after two men were charged in connection with her murder — a court hearing will begin Monday to determine how the case proceeds.

Among the key issues a judge must decide: Whether most charges should be dropped because too much time has passed since the crime, and whether the trial should be moved from Irwin County in South Georgia.

Chuck Boring, Cobb County assistant district attorney who is not involved with the case, said moving the trial might be unnecessary. It’s okay for jurors selected for the trial to already have an opinion on the case, he said. “It’s whether that opinion is so fixed that it cannot be changed by the evidence” that might disqualify them, Boring said.

November 26, 2018 Ocilla - Ryan Alexander Duke (center), who is charged with murder in the Grinstead case, confers with his attorneys John Merchant (left) and Ashleigh Merchant during a motions hearing before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at the Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on Monday, November 26, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Though the facts surrounding Grinstead’s disappearance have been widely publicized, other key details haven’t been released, including how and when investigators believe she was killed.

Grinstead, 30, an Irwin County High School teacher and former beauty queen, was last seen on Oct. 22, 2005, when she left a cookout and said she was going straight home. Two days later, she was reported missing when she didn’t show up to teach history. There were few clues to her disappearance. Her cell phone was found in her home, but her purse and keys were gone, though her unlocked car was in the driveway.

There was a massive search that lasted for months to find Grinstead. Her school portrait appeared on countless billboards. But the case went cold — for more than 11 years. In early 2017, two of Grinstead’s former students, Ryan Alexander Duke and Bo Dukes, were both charged in connection with her disappearance.

According to arrest warrants, investigators believe Duke killed Grinstead and Dukes helped hide her body. In April 2017, a grand jury indicted Duke on six counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing the death of another. In June 2017, Dukes was indicted on charges including concealing a death, tampering with evidence, and hindering apprehension of a criminal.

In this Oct. 4, 2006 photo, teacher Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Georgia. New court documents suggest that within weeks of her disappearance, two of her ex-students told friends at a party they had killed her and burned her body.
Photo: Elliott Minor/AP

But according to court documents filed in August by Duke’s previous defense team, investigators knew within weeks of Grinstead’s disappearance that Duke and Dukes were involved. And because it took so long to arrest the suspects, most of the charges should be dropped due to the statute of limitations, the motion states. In Georgia, there is no statute of limitations on a murder charge.

“It is undisputed that Irwin County law enforcement knew of these crimes within months of the disappearance of Tara Grinstead,” a court motion states. “In fact, a search of the area where Ms. Grinstead’s body was allegedly burned was conducted…”

In August, Cobb County attorneys Ashleigh and John Merchant announced they would now be representing Duke.

Attorney Philip Holloway is not directly involved in the Grinstead case, but has been featured on a popular podcast about the Grinstead case, “Up and Vanished.” Whether the delay in pursuing the suspects was an oversight on the part of law enforcement due to the case changing hands over the years, Holloway says the defense has a strong argument for dropping most of the charges.

“It’s without question that despite what the GBI said, it’s clear that he was on law enforcement’s radar, and he was on their radar within months of this happening,” Holloway said.

When Duke was arrested in February 2017, the GBI said the suspect had not previously been on the radar.

Longtime prosecutor Don Geary, who now works as a defense attorney, said even if other charges are dropped, prosecutors could seek the death penalty against Duke, if he’s convicted.

“In Georgia, they can still get life without parole,” Geary said.

Even if charges are dropped against Duke, evidence used to bring the charges could still be used in court, according to the attorneys.

The attorneys agree that despite the logistical challenges of moving the trial to another county, it may be necessary due to the publicity the case has received over the years.

“The chances of the change of venue being granted are about 99.9 percent,” Holloway said. “Nobody can realistically dispute that the jury in Irwin county is tainted by what they know or what what they think they know.”

Moving the trial could eliminate appeals down the road, Geary said.

“If it really is an issue, make it go away,” Geary said. “You don’t want someone coming back second-guessing.”

Arguments for the change of venue and the other 32 motions will be heard beginning Monday in the Irwin County courthouse. Judge Bill Reinhardt, the chief judge of the Tifton Circuit of Georgia, will preside. Duke and his attorneys, along with Irwin County prosecutors, are expected to attend the hearing, which could continue Tuesday. It’s not known whether Reinhardt will immediately rule on the motions.

Come back to ajc.com Monday to read more as the hearing progresses.

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