Trial in teacher’s death hinges on confession, glove: “We’ve had his DNA since 2005”

FAN Editor

A Georgia man charged with murdering a popular high school teacher who vanished in 2005 went on trial Monday with prosecutors and defense attorneys clashing over whether the jury should believe the defendant’s confession to investigators.

Ryan Duke’s trial opened more than 16 years after Tara Grinstead was last seen leaving an evening cookout in rural south Georgia. Her disappearance lingered as an unsolved mystery in Irwin County for more than a decade until Duke told Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents in 2017 that he killed Grinstead after breaking into her home to steal money for drugs.

“He confesses with his words. He confesses with his writings,” prosecutor J.D. Hart told the jury Monday in his opening statement. “He confesses with his actions by walking them out there and showing them where he burned the body.”

Hart also told the jury that evidence will show Duke was the “primary contributor” of DNA left on a latex glove in Grinstead’s front yard.

“We’ve had his DNA since 2005,” Hart said. “We just didn’t know.”

Tara Grinstead
Tara Grinstead

Ashleigh Merchant, one of Duke’s defense attorneys, told jurors her client was coerced into confessing while under the influence of drugs and his statements to investigators can’t be trusted.

She also said the jury will hear evidence that investigators “tried very hard” to find DNA on the glove matching a second man already convicted of helping dispose of Grinstead’s body, but test results were inconclusive.

“Ryan did not harm Ms. Grinstead,” Merchant said, “and at the end of this trial you will agree with us.”

Grinstead, who taught history and was a former beauty queen, was just 30 when she went missing. Before Duke’s confession. her family held out hope that she might return home safe.

Her body was never recovered. Duke told investigators he and an accomplice took Grinstead’s body to a pecan orchard in a neighboring county and burned it to ash.

Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt seated 12 jurors and six alternates last week after just four days of jury selection.

It happened quickly considering the pervasive publicity that has surrounded the case ever since Grinstead’s disappearance. The court clerk mailed out 800 jury duty notices for the trial to ensure a better chance of finding enough impartial jurors.

If convicted of murder, Duke faces an automatic sentence of life in prison. A court fight over funding for his legal defense and the coronavirus pandemic contributed to long delays in the case going to trial.

A second person with a similar name, Bo Dukes, was convicted in 2019 for helping move and burn Grinstead’s body. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Last year, “48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant, who covered the case for over a decade, visited the small town of Ocilla, Georgia, which has been consumed with suspicion and theories about the disappearance of Grinstead.

Many people, including Maria Woods Harber, have questions about Bo Dukes’ version of events: that Ryan alone killed Tara and Bo had only helped burn her body.

“I believe [they] were both in this together. I’ve had to come to a conclusion that I’m just gonna have to live the rest of my life not knowing,” she said.

“What happened in this orchard was senseless…” said Woods Harber. “Two men who had no regard for a beautiful, loving person took her life.”

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