GA Supreme Court throws out gag order in Tara Grinstead case

Tara Grinstead/WGXA

ATLANTA, Ga.-- Early Monday, the Supreme Court of Georgia announced that it has thrown out the gag order imposed by the Irwin County Superior Court in the high-profile murder case of Tara Grinstead.

Following this development, Grinstead's sister Anita Gattis sent WGXA this statement Monday morning:

"Receiving the news earlier today that the Georgia State Supreme Court overturned the gag order was a great relief to our family. My husband and I have waited over a year for updates from law enforcement concerning Tara's case, but due to the the gag order we know very little more than the public at large. We hope with this new ruling, we will be able to have an open line of communication with the G.B.I., as well as the prosecutors from both court districts. It is also our desire that with the needed press coverage, many rumors and innuendos will be put to rest. We are very thankful for the media outlets who pushed forward to have the modified order brought before the high state court on appeal. Should there have been a gag order issued in the first place? It is my opinion that it was never needed and was way to broad, thus hindering us from receiving certain facts in Tara's murder."

JT Ricketson, special agent with the GBI, says now that the Grinstead case is in the courts, it's up to the District Attorneys to provide new information. And now that the year-long gag order has been lifted, the District Attorneys can provide new information at their discretion.

WGXA reached out on Monday to the Irwin County District Attorney, Ben Hill County District Attorney and Pulaski County District Attorney -- all of whom either declined to comment or didn't respond. The Ben Hill County Sheriff's Office declined to comment since the GBI took the lead of this case, while Irwin County Sheriff's didn't respond to comment requests.

More than 12 years ago, Grinstead, an Irwin County High School teacher and beauty queen, disappeared from her home in Ocilla, GA. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted a massive investigation, interviewing more than 200 people and conducting searches of local waterways and other properties. For years, print and broadcast media outlets reported about the case, but eventually the case went cold.

In February of 2017, after allegedly receiving a tip, the GBI arrested Ryan Alexander Duke and charged him with Grinstead’s murder. Duke, who had graduated from Irwin County High School a few years before Grinstead vanished, pleaded not guilty. At a news conference that day in the Irwin County courthouse, authorities announced the arrest.

Following the news conference, the magistrate conducted a first appearance hearing where Duke appeared in a green and white jail jumpsuit, shackles and handcuffs. The media was permitted to film Duke in the courtroom. Within a week, the trial judge entered a gag order after Duke’s attorney asked the court to bar trial participants from commenting on the case.

Specifically the order restrained “the prosecution, all law enforcement, the defendant, counsel for the defendant, potential witnesses, expert or other, court personnel and family members for both the defendant and alleged victim” from making any statements outside court “for dissemination by any means of public communication relating to any matters having to do with this case.” The judge explained that, “the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial may be prejudiced by extra-judicial statements” because “this case is high profile and has generated extensive media coverage.” On March 2, 2017 several Georgia based media outlets filed an “Emergency Motion to Intervene and to Vacate the Gag Order.”

Other news organizations promptly filed motions to intervene, as did Grinstead’s sister. At a hearing on the motions, attorneys for the media outlets argued that the gag order impaired news gathering, was a constitutionally impermissible prior restraint, swept too broadly, and was improperly issued with no evidentiary record to support it.

Duke’s attorney introduced 78 exhibits containing various forms of media coverage about the Grinstead case and Duke’s arrest. The attorney argued the gag order was warranted and necessary, and the State’s prosecuting attorney said the State did not object to a gag order.

On March 27, 2017, the trial court rescinded its “First Order” and issued a “Modified Order of Court.” The “revised order,” as the State calls it, states that until final disposition of the case, the district attorney, his staff, Duke’s attorney and staff, Duke’s co-defendant (whom the State alleges helped conceal Grinstead’s body), the co-defendant’s attorney and staff, and all law enforcement who participated in the investigation, “shall not release, make or authorize the release of any extra-judicial statement by any means of public communication and news media.” The order states that, “Any violations of this Order may be punished by contempt of court.” The modified order is substantially narrower than the original order, but the news organizations asked the trial court to reconsider, arguing that it remains an improper prior restraint on their freedom of speech, and the evidence and findings of fact in the case do not establish a sufficiently high likelihood of prejudice to warrant any restraint. They also argued that the trial court failed to consider other less restrictive alternatives.

In the 25-page opinion, the Georgia Supreme court points out that the standard of review which courts should apply in determining whether a gag order is proper “is a difficult question,” and “the United States Supreme Court has never decided a case exactly like this one.” To complicate matters, courts have applied different ranges of standards to determine whether a gag order is necessary to protect a defendant’s right to an impartial jury and fair trial. “In the end, we conclude that it is unnecessary today to decide definitively which standard applies in cases like this one,” the opinion says. That is because, in this case, “Even under the most deferential standard, the evidence of record and findings of the superior court cannot sustain the modified gag order.”

“Here, although the record shows significant media interest in the case, it does not demonstrate any likelihood that persons to whom the modified gag order is directed would make prejudicial statements,” the opinion says. “We have reviewed the exhibits offered by Duke at the hearing to illustrate the nature and extent of media coverage, and we find no reports attributing inflammatory statements or prejudicial information to sources covered by the modified gag order.” Indeed, many of the reports share information from arrest warrants and other public records. And images of Duke in shackles and an inmate uniform were not obtained from persons covered by the gag order but instead “were captured by media photographers in open court.”

“Duke and the State fail to identify a single statement attributed to any person to whom the modified gag order applies that would be likely to prejudice Duke’s right to a trial by an impartial jury, and we cannot say that the record shows even a reasonable likelihood of prejudice sufficient to sustain a gag order,” the opinion concludes. “For that reason, the modified gag order is vacated.”

Residents of Ocilla said they're pleased taht the gag order has been lifted, but have different reasons as to why.

Latasha Cobb, one of Grinstead's former students, said "It'll help. I think it'll help with letting everybody know what's really going on. Hopefully, the community will be at peace when they find out what really happened and who did it."

Another Ocilla resident, Wendy Floyd, said, "because I think there's a lot of questions that need to be asked and a lot of questions that need to be answered. Concerning Tara's case. I really do."

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