Court: Defendant entitled to state funds in Tara Grinstead murder case

Tara Grinstead, 30, an Irwin County High School history teacher and a former beauty queen, was last seen alive at a party on Oct. 22, 2005. When she failed to to show up in her classroom two days later, a massive search was launched to find her, and it became a national news story. The reward for information grew, but no trace of Grinstead was found. (Image: www.findtara.com)

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Tara Grinstead, 30, an Irwin County High School history teacher and a former beauty queen, was last seen alive at a party on Oct. 22, 2005. When she failed to to show up in her classroom two days later, a massive search was launched to find her, and it became a national news story. The reward for information grew, but no trace of Grinstead was found. (Image: www.findtara.com)

Ryan Alexander Duke is entitled to state funds for his defense against a murder charge in the case involving slain South Georgia beauty queen Tara Grinstead, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled Monday.

The court overruled a decision by an Irwin County trial judge who found that Duke could not receive such funds because he is represented by pro bono counsel — private attorneys representing him at no cost. In preparing Duke’s defense, they had been denied funds to pay expert witnesses and an investigator.

But the high court found the Indigent Defense Act of 2003 allows defendants who cannot afford counsel the right to “ancillary defense services.” This can be done through a contract with the state indigent defense system or a local public defender office, the court said.

“It’s awesome,” said Marietta lawyer Ashleigh Merchant, one of Duke’s pro bono lawyers. “It’s what we wanted. They agreed he’s entitled to the funds he needs.”

Merchant also called the ruling “good for our state because it allows pro bono lawyers to take on these cases, which alleviates the burden off the public defender system.”

Duke was represented by a public defender before he retained Merchant, her husband John Merchant and Atlanta lawyer John Gibbs, all of whom agreed to work for free.

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Ryan Alexander Duke (center), charged with murder in the Tara Grinstead case, confers with his attorneys John Merchant (left) and Ashleigh Merchant during motion hearing before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on November 26, 2018. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Ryan Alexander Duke (center), charged with murder in the Tara Grinstead case, confers with his attorneys John Merchant (left) and Ashleigh Merchant during motion hearing before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on November 26, 2018. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Ryan Alexander Duke (center), charged with murder in the Tara Grinstead case, confers with his attorneys John Merchant (left) and Ashleigh Merchant during motion hearing before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on November 26, 2018. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Duke stands indicted for the murder of Grinstead, who went missing in 2005 when she failed to show up to teach her Irwin County High School history class. After his 2017 arrest, Duke confessed to the crime, authorities said.

State prosecutors had argued that allowing pro bono counsel access to public funds would drain Georgia Public Defender Council resources used by public defenders.

“We disagree,” Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote for the 8-1 majority. “The (Indigent Defense Act) established a system … for funding defense counsel and ancillary services for indigent defendants to ensure that defense lawyers and ancillary service providers are competent and conflict-free.”

Moreover, the state public defender system has oversight, not just of its own public defenders, “but also through contracts with outside counsel and ancillary service providers,” Melton wrote. And the system doesn’t have to spend “additional public funds to provide counsel because pro bono counsel need not be compensated for the work.”

In a strongly worded concurring opinion, Justice Nels Peterson said he wanted to make explicit something Melton’s majority opinion left implicit.

“The GPDC would be most unwise to decline to contract with Duke’s counsel,” wrote Peterson, joined by Justices Michael Boggs and Sarah Warren.

“Now that the GPDC understands that it has the authority to contract with Duke’s counsel and thereby provide funding for experts necessary to Duke’s case, the GPDC would do well to do so, lest the already-considerable delays in bringing this case to trial grow even longer,” Peterson wrote.

Peterson found “a bit mystifying” the prosecution’s claim that Duke’s request for funds for ancillary services would impose a severe financial burden on the defender system. “The state’s position would seem to discourage lawyers from taking on the cases of indigent criminal defendants pro bono, shifting additional defense representation costs onto the state,” he wrote.