Georgia’s highest court said Monday that it lacks authority to hear a pretrial appeal from a man charged with killing a high school teacher whose disappearance remained a mystery for more than a decade.
The state Supreme Court in March delayed Ryan Duke’s murder trial so it could consider whether it had jurisdiction to hear his emergency pretrial appeal. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Charles Bethel, the high court concluded it does not.
Jury selection had been scheduled to begin April 1 in Duke’s trial. He faces charges including murder in the death of teacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead in rural Irwin County.
Grinstead was 30 in October 2005 when she disappeared from her home in Ocilla, about 185 miles (about 300 kilometers) south of Atlanta. A billboard with her photo and a tip line number loomed for years in the area, and hope remained that she’d be found alive.
Her death was confirmed when Duke and another man were arrested in February 2017.
Duke was represented by public defenders at first, but in August he accepted the offer of private attorneys willing to defend him for free. They sought state funding for expert witnesses in DNA, false confessions and psychology.
Tifton Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt ruled that Duke has the right to be represented by private attorneys, but that if he chooses that route he’s not also entitled to state funding for experts and investigators.
Duke’s attorneys tried to appeal the judge’s order to the state Supreme Court. But a trial judge must grant permission for immediate review of a pretrial ruling, and Reinhardt refused that permission.
Bethel wrote in a footnote that the underlying merits of Duke’s application for a pretrial appeal “appear to present difficult, complex, and important constitutional questions for which there is no controlling legal precedent.” But because the lower court didn’t give permission for a pretrial appeal, Bethel wrote, the high court cannot address those issues.
Ashleigh Merchant, one of Duke’s lawyers, wrote in an email they are “disappointed but not surprised.” She said she hopes the trial judge will agree that the issue is so important that it should be resolved before trial and will now give them permission to take the matter to the Supreme Court before trial.
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified at a pretrial hearing that Duke confessed to killing Grinstead almost 14 years ago after breaking into her home to steal money for drugs. GBI agents have also said DNA matching both Duke and Grinstead was found on a latex glove discovered in her yard.
Duke’s attorneys have said he made a false confession under the influence of drugs. They said in court filings that Duke was asleep at home when Grinstead was killed.
Duke’s former best friend and co-defendant, Bo Dukes, was convicted in March of helping conceal Grinstead’s death and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison. He told authorities he helped Duke burn her body in a rural pecan orchard.