ATLANTA — Georgia's highest court on Monday ruled 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, the high court concluded it does not.
Jury selection had been scheduled to begin April 1 in Duke's trial. He's charged with 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 the phone number of a tip line loomed for years in the area, and her family hoped she might be found alive.
Her death was confirmed when Duke and another man were arrested in February 2017. Duke was indicted in April 2017 on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing a death.
He was represented by public defenders at first, but in August 2018 he accepted the officer 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.
Duke's attorneys then asked the Supreme Court to bypass that requirement and consider the substantive issues as allowed by a 2000 decision in "exceptional cases that involve an issue of great concern, gravity, and importance to the public and no timely opportunity for appellate review."
The Supreme Court on March 28 postponed the start of Duke's trial while it decided whether it could do that.
After hearing arguments from both sides last month, the high court concluded it did not have jurisdiction and overruled its 2000 ruling.
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified at a pretrial hearing that Duke confessed to killing Grinstead almost 14 years ago after he broke 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.