The arrest one week ago of a man accused of killing a south Georgia teacher was the news her family and community awaited for more than 11 years. A tipster led state investigators to the man believed responsible for killing Tara Grinstead.
But the arrest has led to more questions than answers. Who is Ryan Alexander Duke, the man charged with killing the popular Irwin County High School teacher? Why would he do it? Did he conspire with anyone? It’s unclear now when any questions will be answered thanks to a sweeping “gag order” that has stopped the flow of even routine information in the case even as investigators search a South Georgia pecan farm for Grinstead’s remains.
“I’m not allowed to say anything,” GBI Special Agent in Charge J.T. Ricketson said Tuesday.
Earlier that day, Superior Court Judge Melanie Cross of the Tifton Judicial Circuit signed a gag order prohibiting statements made about the case outside of a courtroom. Members of law enforcement, potential witnesses, court personnel and family members of both Grinstead and her alleged killer are all prohibited from making statements about the case, the order states.
“Because this case is high-profile and has generated extensive media coverage, and because the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial may be prejudiced by extra-judicial statements, the court has considered and weighed the issue and hereby finds that there is a reasonable likelihood the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by an impartial jury may be prejudiced by extra judicial statements,” Cross wrote in the order.
After Duke’s arrest, Ricketson thanked the media for the amount of coverage the case has been given over the years. Now, reporters are struggling for details — even information that is typically public record.
One legal expert said the order was unusual in its scope.
“It’s over-broad,” Augusta attorney David Hudson said Thursday.
A better option would be to move the trial, said Hudson, who has represented newspapers in central and south Georgia. It isn’t known whether a hearing was held before the Grinstead gag order was signed, but hearings were held in prior cases, he said. Plus, lawyers are already ethically bound not to discuss case specifics.
“The cases say if you try to gag anyone else, you have to have a hearing and have specific findings and show it’s necessary to do it,” Hudson said.
The gag order can be challenged, Hudson said, and the orders can be modified or dropped.
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