November 26, 2018 Ocilla - Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt speaks during Monday’s hearing at Irwin County Courthouse. Reinhardt said he isn’t prepared to agree to a change of venue for the trial, which is scheduled to begin April 1, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Trial date set, but not the location for Tara Grinstead homicide case

A trial date has been set for the man accused of killing South Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead, but it’s not clear if the trial will take place in Irwin County where she lived and worked.

The trial for Ryan Alexander Duke, a former student of Grinstead’s now charged with her murder, will begin on April 1 and could last a month.

At a hearing Monday in Ocilla to resolve several legal motions in the case, Duke’s defense attorneys requested the trial be moved and prosecutors agreed. But Judge Bill Reinhardt said he isn’t ready to agree to the venue change until more has been done to assess the potential jury pool in Irwin County.

November 26, 2018 Ocilla - Ryan Alexander Duke, charged with the murder of Tara Grinstead, is escorted out after his motion hearings before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Duke sat motionless in the courtroom. With short hair and clean-shaven, he looked drastically different than previous photos following his arrest. About 10 of Duke’s family members were seated on one side of the courtroom. Grinstead’s family members sat on the opposite side.

Grinstead, 30, an Irwin County High School history teacher and former beauty queen, was last seen on Oct. 22, 2005, when she left a cookout and said she was going to her Ocilla home. Two days later, she was reported missing when she didn’t show up at school.

Despite the massive search to find Grinstead, the case remained cold for more than 11 years. The GBI announced Duke’s arrest in February 2017 and days later, a second person, Bo Dukes, was arrested for allegedly helping conceal the death. Duke and Dukes were classmates at Irwin County High School.

In this Oct. 4, 2006, photo, teacher Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Georgia. Publicity surrounding the case and the community’s involvement in the search for her may make it difficult to seat an impartial jury. 
Photo: Elliott Minor/AP

The case has been the subject of countless newspaper articles, television shows and a podcast. But Reinhardt said the massive news coverage the case has received 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, 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. A hearing on changing the venue will be held at a later date, the judge said.

November 26, 2018 Ocilla - Ryan Alexander Duke, charged with the murder of Tara Grinstead, was one of her students at Irwin County High School. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring, who isn’t involved in the Grinstead case, said moving a trial is costly and can be a logistical challenge. Boring was a prosecutor for the Ross Harris case — the man convicted of murder after leaving his toddler in a hot SUV — which was moved from Cobb to Glynn County in 2016.

"Most of the time, the court attempts to get a jury in that jurisdiction first," Boring said. “The law doesn’t hold that jurors have to be oblivious to the facts of the case. It’s whether they can put aside whatever they’ve heard and focus on what they hear in the courtroom.”

The change of venue was among several issues discussed in Monday’s motions hearing. A motion that would’ve cleared 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 agreed. But a handful were discussed, and Reinhardt says he will begin issuing his rulings later this week.

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 $1,500 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. Reinhardt didn’t indicate which way he will rule.

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.

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