Despite confession, defense says no evidence Ryan Duke killed Tara Grinstead

Opening statements move quickly as trial begins in teacher’s death
Ryan Duke (left) is accused of killing Tara Grinstead in October 2005 in Irwin County. (File photos)



Ryan Duke (left) is accused of killing Tara Grinstead in October 2005 in Irwin County. (File photos)

Ryan Alexander Duke repeatedly confessed that he killed South Georgia teacher and former beauty queen Tara Grinstead, a prosecutor said Monday.

“He confesses with his words. He confesses with his writings. He confesses with his actions by walking them out there and showing them where he burned the body,” J.D. Hart said during opening statements. “He confessed with his knowledge of the phone call. And he confesses with his DNA and his prints on the glove.”

Duke was coerced into his confession, according to a defense attorney. Ashleigh Merchant told the jury there is no evidence he is responsible for killing Grinstead.

“Ryan did not harm Ms. Grinstead, and at the end of this trial you will agree with us,” Merchant said.

Grinstead, 30, was reported missing in October 2005 when she failed to show up to teach her Irwin County High School history classes. She had spent part of the weekend helping girls prepare for a beauty pageant, the same one she had previously won.

A massive search was launched to find Grinstead, whose face appeared on billboards as her disappearance became a national news story. The reward for information grew, but no trace of her was found.

Then in February 2017, the GBI announced an arrest in the cold case. After questioning him for several hours, Duke was arrested. He confessed, according to the GBI investigators. But later, he changed his story and said he didn’t kill Grinstead, but was involved in covering up her death.

Bo Dukes, who isn’t related to Duke, was also charged in the case. In March 2019, Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison for concealing Grinstead’s death. Dukes initially claimed he didn’t know anything about the disappearance and death of Grinstead. Months later, Dukes confessed. He didn’t kill Grinstead but helped dispose of the body, according to evidence at his trial.

Later Monday morning, prosecutors began calling witnesses in the case, including Grinstead’s father and a woman who was at her home the day she was believed to be last seen alive. Dana Giddens, who was 16 at the time, was among the teenagers at Grinstead’s home to prepare for a beauty pageant.

Rhett Roberts, a former Irwin County teacher, told the court Grinstead stopped by his home after she attended the pageant. It was the last time he saw her.

Heath Dykes, with the Perry Police Department, testified about his attempts to reach Grinstead by phone the following day. Dykes, who was romantically involved with Grinstead, had been in touch with her mother, who had also been unable to reach her, he testified.

“Let me know you’re okay,” Dykes said in one voicemail, played in court.

When she never responded and couldn’t be found, Dykes said he contacted the GBI.

“At that point in time, I knew it wasn’t good,” he testified.

By Monday morning, two days after Grinstead was last seen, a neighbor and others in the community went to her home. The next-door neighbor had a key, he testified. That day, many of those arriving at the home noticed a latex glove on the ground near the front of the home, witnesses said Monday.

That glove, and whose handprints it contained, is expected to be a key piece of evidence for prosecutors, who say it contained Duke’s DNA.

The trial will resume Tuesday at 9 a.m.