Suspect in Tara Grinstead’s killing hires Cobb County attorneys

The man accused of killing a South Georgia teacher nearly 13 years ago has hired two Cobb County attorneys to represent him.

Ashleigh Merchant, who practices in Marietta, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday she and her husband, John Merchant, will represent Ryan Alexander Duke. Duke has been charged with murder in the 2005 death of Tara Grinstead, an Irwin County High School teacher and former beauty queen.

Duke, one of Grinstead’s former students, was arrested in February 2017. He remains in jail and has been represented by public defenders.

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"We decided to take the case because we believe in his innocence,” Merchant said in text message. “We know Ryan wants his story told and we want to help him tell it. He has been demonized and we want to help the truth come out."

Merchant has served as a legal commentator on the AJC’s “Breakdown” podcast series.

Grinstead, 30, 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.

The search for Grinstead made national headlines, but the case went cold for many years until the GBI announced Duke’s arrest. Days later, a second suspect, Bo Dukes, was also arrested. He’s accused of helping conceal Grinstead’s death.

According to court documents filed last week in Irwin County Superior Court, both Duke and Dukes confessed to the crimes within weeks of Grinstead’s disappearance. In a motion filed in court, Duke’s attorneys claimed investigators dropped the ball on the case. 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.

A motions hearing is scheduled for Sept. 20 in Ocilla.

- Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this report.