Tara Grinstead case: Prosecution rests, judge declines to dismiss case

Ryan Duke listens to testimony Wednesday during his trial in Irwin County. Duke is accused of killing 30-year-old Tara Grinstead.

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Ryan Duke listens to testimony Wednesday during his trial in Irwin County. Duke is accused of killing 30-year-old Tara Grinstead.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

Prosecutors rested their case Monday morning in the murder trial of Ryan Alexander Duke, accused of killing south Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead.

Duke’s defense team immediately asked Judge Bill Reinhardt to dismiss the case. Reinhardt declined and the trial continued Monday afternoon when the defense began calling witnesses.

In October 2005, 30-year-old Grinstead was reported missing when she failed to show up to teach her Irwin County High School history classes. Her disappearance launched a massive search and made national headlines, but Grinstead was never found.

Despite an extensive investigation, no arrests were made in the case until February 2017. Duke was charged with her murder after an hours-long interview with the GBI during which he confessed, according to investigators.

ExploreTara Grinstead case: Glove contained DNA from teacher, Duke and unknown person

“I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused,” Duke told GBI investigators the day of his arrest. According to a transcript of that interview, Duke said, “I took her life, robbed her of a chance to get married and have children, growing old, and she didn’t deserve that and there is nothing I can do to change it.”

During the confession, Duke said he broke into Grinstead’s house to steal money for drugs. When she caught him, Duke said he hit Grinstead. The blow killed her, he said.

Duke then led investigators to a pecan farm in a neighboring county, where he said he and his high school classmate Bo Dukes burned Grinstead’s body. 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. Months later, Dukes confessed. He didn’t kill Grinstead but helped dispose of the body, on his uncle’s property, according to evidence at his trial.

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Ashleigh Merchant, defense attorney for Ryan Duke, argued Monday that the murder case against Ryan Duke should be dismissed.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

Ashleigh Merchant, defense attorney for Ryan Duke, argued Monday that the murder case against Ryan Duke should be dismissed.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

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Ashleigh Merchant, defense attorney for Ryan Duke, argued Monday that the murder case against Ryan Duke should be dismissed.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

Credit: Law & Crime Network

Duke later recanted his confession, too, and his defense attorneys have argued it was a false confession and one he was coerced into making.

After the state rested its case Monday inside the Irwin County courthouse, defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant asked the judge to issue a directive verdict or dismissal of the case.

“There is no evidence she died in Irwin County,” Merchant told the court. “There is no evidence she died in that home. There is no evidence she was killed.”

Reinhardt declined to dismiss the case against Duke.

The first witness called by the defense was Christopher Tillitski, a Macon psychologist who interviewed Duke two years after his arrest. Tillitski testified that Duke told him he had a history of depression, anxiety, and addiction. Duke also told Tillitski he had taken numerous pills, including Percocet, Vicodin, and Morphine, in addition to smoking marijuana prior to his interview with the GBI.

But the day Duke confessed to the GBI, he said he had only taken on pain pill hours earlier, according to audio of the confession played for the court. GBI investigators previously testified Duke showed no signs of being under the influence.

After the 2017 confession, Duke took investigators to the area where he said he and Dukes burned her body. Investigators scoured the area and human remains, including bone fragments and part of a tooth, were located. But because they had been burned and damaged, there was no way to positively link them to Grinstead, forensic scientists testified.

A key piece of evidence in the case is a latex glove found in Grinstead’s front yard. Scientists have testified that 90% of the DNA on the glove belonged to Duke. Grinstead’s DNA was also located on the glove. A third person whose DNA was found on the glove has not been identified.

Investigators have also said Duke knew about a payphone call placed to Grinstead’s house within hours after she was last seen alive. The GBI said the call was “guilty evidence” because details about the call had not been released to the public.

The trial will resume Tuesday morning.