News outlets challenge gag order in slain teacher case
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — News organizations on Tuesday asked the Georgia Supreme Court to lift a gag order imposed in the case of a man charged with killing a Georgia high school teacher who went missing 12 years ago.
Tara Grinstead was reported missing in October 2005 when she didn’t show up for work at the school where she taught in rural Irwin County. No arrests were made until early this year, when a tipster contacted authorities with new information.
Police in February announced the arrest of Ryan Alexander Duke, a former student at the school where Grinstead taught. Duke was indicted in April on two counts of felony murder and one count each of malice murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing the death of another.
Another man, Bo Dukes, was arrested in March and was indicted in June on charges of concealing a death, tampering with evidence and hindering the apprehension of a criminal.
Grinstead’s disappearance from her home in Ocilla, about 190 miles (305 kilometers) south of Atlanta, sparked a search that lasted more than a decade, until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Duke’s arrest.
Duke burglarized the teacher’s home, and used his hands to kill her inside the residence, according to warrants that were read at a court hearing when his arrest was announced. He then removed her body from the home with the intent of concealing her death, the warrants said.
Many questions remain about why she was killed.
Soon after Duke’s arrest, the judge in the case issued a gag order prohibiting attorneys, investigators, potential witnesses and even relatives of the victim and suspects from publicly discussing Grinstead’s slaying. The judge later modified it to prohibit attorneys, law enforcement and court personnel from disclosing case evidence, any statements made by Duke, expected witness testimony and potential pleas. The order no longer prohibits Grinstead’s family and potential witnesses from speaking.
WXIA-TV and WMAZ-TV challenged the amended order and the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Tuesday in a special session at the University of Georgia’s law school.
Derek Bauer, an attorney for the television stations, noted that the case has drawn extensive news coverage, more than most other murder cases. He acknowledged the judge’s duty to ensure a fair trial, but he said she went too far.
“These are complicated interests to balance ... and so we appreciate her sensitivity to controlling the courtroom and what kind of media attention the case gets,” he argued. “But you can’t jump to prior restraint. You can’t assume that just because there’s intense media attention that the evidence has risen to the level that the court can fairly say this will impair the trial.”
The order amounts to prior restraint on the people affected by the order and, therefore, impedes the ability of reporters to gather information on the case, Bauer said.
Michael Gowen, an attorney for Duke, said they’re not asking for the media to be prohibited from reporting on the case but they’re concerned about specific, potentially prejudicial, details being relayed to reporters.
“What we’re concerned about is the balancing test between the media’s First Amendment rights to cover and our client’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial that has not been prejudiced by details” that are not commonly known to people other than law enforcement officers, Gowen said.
The justices questioned whether the television stations could raise the issue of prior restraint since the gag order applies to other people and does not prohibit news outlets from saying or publishing anything. But they also seemed skeptical when Gowen couldn’t point to any improper prejudicial disclosures that would demonstrate the need for the gag order.