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Ryan Duke acquitted of murder in Tara Grinstead case

Of the six counts, Ryan Duke was only found guilty of concealing Tara Grinstead's death.

OCILLA, Ga. — After nine days in court and about eight hours of deliberating, the jury in the Ryan Duke trial reached a verdict. It was as follows, count-by-count:

  • Count 1: Malice murder NOT GUILTY
  • Count 2: Felony murder NOT GUILTY
  • Count 3: Murder NOT GUILTY
  • Count 4: Aggravated assault NOT GUILTY
  • Count 5: Burglary NOT GUILTY
  • Count 6: Concealing the death of another GUILTY

The jurors were then thanked for their service and dismissed shortly thereafter. 

About 30 minutes later, Duke's defense team -- Ashleigh and John Merchant -- held a press conference in front of the courthouse to discuss their thoughts on the verdict and trial as a whole.

Reporters also heard from Duke's family members, who expressed their relief in the verdict and shared their hopes Irwin County could begin the healing process.

Duke, however, was not present at the press conference. He swiftly left after getting into a vehicle in front of the courthouse.

Day-by-day in court

Day 1The trial for the man accused of killing Tara Grinstead in Oct. 2005 got off to a quick start on May 9. The state and Duke’s attorneys delivered their opening statements, giving a glimpse on how each side would present and argue their cases. The arguments focused on the Feb. 2017 confession from Ryan Duke. The GBI says Duke confessed spontaneously and unsolicited to investigators he killed Grinstead.

The prosecution said he confessed to the murder in more than one way – in his interview with agents, by physically writing out in detail what he says he did to murder her, and he also had what the prosecution called ‘guilty knowledge.’

The defense said the confession was false and though Duke repeatedly confessed, his attorneys said he was under the influence of a narcotic pain medicine. They also said he falsely confessed because he feared Bo Dukes, Ryan’s former friend and roommate, who the defense implied is responsible.

Aside from the confession, jurors also heard about the glove – which the state said is the vital piece of evidence found in Grinstead’s front yard. The GBI said the glove contains DNA from two people on it – Grinstead and Duke.

Day 2: Jurors heard from the first investigators at Grinstead’s home after she didn’t show up to work on a Monday in Oct. 2005. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from court was the evidence found at her home back in 2005, or rather the evidence investigators couldn’t find.

GBI Special Agent Jeff Roesler and Ocilla police officer Bill Barrs said they looked at all the doors and windows in her home on the day she was reported missing. There was no sign of forced entry.

Investigators also testified that friends of Grinstead were in and out of the home while officers were working the scene, but there was no evidence the crime scene had been cleaned.

GBI agent Franklin Weathersby testified he collected 117 swabs from Grinstead's car in Dec. 2005 – nearly two months after she vanished. The problem was the car sat unsupervised at her home for at least part of the time. 

Investigators did not know who had been in or out of the car. Her next-door neighbor had her car detailed sometime after she disappeared, making it difficult for investigators to collect anything.

Day 3: Bombshell information rocked the courtroom as most of the day’s testimony came from retired GBI Special Agent Gary Rothwell. He said media attention made it difficult to investigate Grinstead's disappearance. He also detailed how evidence collected at her home was transported to the crime lab.

He also admitted the names of Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes had come up in the investigation more than a decade before, but agents didn’t follow up, assuming Ocilla Police had cleared them.

Day 4: Testimony focused on video from 2017 where Duke confessed to investigators he killed Grinstead. The courtroom spent the morning watching his taped confession, and then watched video of Duke trying to show investigators where he claimed to have burned Grinstead’s body.

After viewing the videos, both the prosecution and defense questioned GBI Agent Jason Shoudel about what state Duke was in at the time of the confession.

Day 5: The state called three evidence analysts to testify. It was a short day in court.

Day 6: Defense attorneys questioned prosecution witnesses on whether there was any forensic evidence tying Duke to Tara Grinstead’s murder.

A forensic specialist testified DNA recovered from bone fragments at a pecan grove in Ben Hill County was inconclusive, meaning prosecutors could not confirm it was Grinstead's remains. The state then rested its case.

Duke’s defense team said none of the evidence presented proved Grinstead died of a homicide, so the defense asked the judge for a directed verdict. It was overruled, and the defense began presenting its case.

Day 7: Ryan Duke took the stand in his own defense and told the courtroom a different story than what he told investigators in his 2017 confession.

He said -- back in 2005 -- that Bo had no job, no money, and sponged off him by living in his trailer. He testified Bo would steal from him.

He also claimed that on the night of Oct. 22, 2005 – the night Tara went missing – he and Bo drank beer and did shots of tequila. Duke said Bo woke him around 8 a.m. the next morning and told him he killed Grinstead.

The two men were classmates at Irwin County High, where Grinstead taught. He later testified that Bo took him to a pecan orchard in Ben Hill County.

The prosecution started poking holes in Duke’s testimony, asking him why investigators found a glove with his and Grinstead’s DNA on it in her front yard. The state also argued Duke’s various stories contradicted each other.

Bo Dukes was also called in to testify, but he pleaded the Fifth to avoid incriminating himself.

Day 8: The day started with a hearing about whether to allow testimony about Bo Dukes. Jurors were not present for the hearing, and Judge Bill Reinhardt ultimately ruled jurors would not hear the testimony once the trial resumed.

In its rebuttal, the prosecution called Mitchell Posey, a GBI inspector and medical examiner, as an expert in the analysis of Duke’s testimony.

Duke’s defense lawyers have argued he was under duress during the interview, that he was scared, and under the influence of painkillers. Posey said the agent interviewing Duke made mistakes while questioning him, but he still found the confession credible.

Judge Reinhardt questioned two jurors about falling asleep in the jury box during the afternoon's testimony. One was dismissed.

Day 9: Each side presented its closing arguments. 

The defense emphasized these points to the jury: they believe it should be Bo Dukes on trial for Grinstead's murder, they said Duke confessed under duress, and they believe the quality of the physical evidence in the case is poor.

The prosecution stood ready to address those points in its statement.

They pointed out repeatedly that Duke voluntarily confessed and replayed portions of his confession. They pointed out the physical evidence, including the glove containing Duke's DNA, and prosecutor Brad Rigby referred to the jurors as 'truth seekers' in telling them to honor their oath.

To see more coverage from the trial, check out our YouTube channel here.

Case history

2005: Evidence in the case dates back nearly 17 years to Oct. 22, 2005 when the Ocilla teacher and beauty queen vanished. Her body was never found and no one was charged in the case, but law enforcement continued to chase numerous clues and tips.

2011: The Irwin County sheriff said he got a tip telling him to search near a bridge on Reedy Creek. He says a dive team and deputies searched for more than four hours and found nothing.

2015: Law enforcement searched a pond in Ben Hill County but said they didn't find what they were looking for.

Fall 2016: A true crime podcast is released, bringing renewed national attention to the case.

Feb. 22, 2017: GBI agents took Ryan Alexander Duke into custody. Duke was charged on six counts, including Grinstead's murder.

Feb. 28, 2017: GBI searched a Ben Hill County pecan farm for Grinstead's remains. At the time, agents did not say what they were looking for or what was found. It was later revealed during Bo Dukes' trial that GBI agents found human bone fragments at the orchard.

March 2017: A second man, Bo Dukes, was charged with helping conceal Grinstead's body. He and Ryan were high school classmates, and his uncle, Randy Hudson, owned the pecan farm where investigators were searching for Tara.

Dec. 2018: A leaked confession hit the internet outlining an alleged 2017 interview between Ryan and the GBI. As investigators worked to figure out who posted it, Ryan's accused accomplice, Bo, was ordered back to federal prison for charges in a separate case, but before turning himself in, he was charged with sexually assaulting two women in Houston County. Considered "armed and dangerous," he led authorities on a four-day manhunt before being taken into custody at a relatives house in Irwin County.

March 2019: Bo Dukes' trial in Wilcox County ended in late March, and he was found guilty of concealing Tara Grinstead's death and lying to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He was sentenced to 25 years.

April 2019: Ryan Duke's trial was supposed to start on April 1 in Irwin County, but at the last minute, the Georgia Supreme Court granted a delay after his defense filed an emergency motion.

May-Aug. 2019: Ryan Duke and his lawyers would argue for the state to cover funds for an investigator for Ryan. This argument would bounce between Irwin County Superior Court and the state Supreme Court.

Sept. 2019: The prosecution and defense agreed to have the Georgia Supreme Court hear the argument again, after Irwin County Judge Reinhardt signs a "certificate of immediate review."

Jan. 2020: An Irwin County judge ruled again that the state should not pay for private investigators and experts to help Ryan Duke prepare for his trial.

Jan. 2021: Supreme Court of Georgia says Duke would appeal an Irwin County’s court denial of his request for state funds to pay for expert witnesses and an investigator.

March 2021: The Georgia Supreme Court issued a decision reversing part of the ruling that would have kept Ryan Duke from using state funds to prepare for trial.

Aug. 2021: Ryan Duke's murder trial was scheduled to start October 4 in Irwin County, but lawyers in the case met with Judge Bill Reinhardt and agreed to delay the case due to rising COVID-19 numbers.

Early 2022: A trial date is set for May 2. Jury selection begins on that day with hundreds summoned.

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