The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday dismissed an application to appeal from the man accused of murdering South Georgia schoolteacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead 14 years ago.
Ryan Duke lost his attempt to have the state pay for his expert witnesses after he fired his public defender in favor of pro bono counsel from Atlanta.
Justice Charlie Bethel wrote for a unanimous court ruling that the justices have no authority in the matter because Tifton Judicial Circuit Chief Judge William Reinhardt II already said no to the funding request and no to a motion for a certificate of immediate review to go straight to the state Supreme Court. Duke’s new lawyers—Ashleigh and John Merchant of the Merchant Law Firm in Marietta and John Gibbs III of Troutman Sanders in Atlanta—went to the court anyway.
“We were disappointed but not surprised by the court’s decision,” Ashleigh Merchant said Tuesday. “We had hoped that criminal defendants would have the same right to appeal pretrial rulings that have a substantial effect on the constitutionality of the trial even when a trial court denies a certificate of immediate review. We hope that the legislature will decide to amend the statute so that criminal defendants will be given the same pretrial appeal rights that the state has. We believe that the Supreme Court clearly thinks this is an issue that should be determined, and we are committed to continue to fight to make sure that Mr. Duke is afforded a fair trial.”
In shutting down Duke’s appeal, the high court overturned its own precedent from a 2000 decision in Waldrip v. Head. Waldrip held that the Supreme Court could bypass the law requiring the trial judge’s agreement to an interlocutory appeal in cases that involve “an issue of great concern, gravity, and importance to the public.” For all other issues, appeals must wait until a case is decided in the trial court.
Bethel quoted from former Justice George Carley’s dissent in Waldrip. Carley said the majority opinion “constitutes blatant judicial usurpation of the legislative function, and cannot be considered to be the legitimate exercise of inherent judicial authority.”
The decision was a victory for Tifton Judicial Circuit District Attorney C. Paul Bowden. He could not be reached immediately for comment.
And it was an affirmation of the trial judge’s holding that, while Duke “has a constitutional right to be represented by private, pro bono counsel if he so chooses, he is not simultaneously constitutionally entitled to experts and investigators funded by the State.”
It was the second appearance before the high court for a murder that has yet to be tried. The justices already put a stop to another judge’s gag order preventing everyone involved from talking about the trial.
The trial had been set to begin April 1 until the Supreme Court agreed a few days before to consider Duke’s appeal over experts.
Duke was indicted in April 2017, charged with malice murder of the former Miss Tifton—plus felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing a death.
Grinstead vanished in 2005 after helping out at the Miss Georgia Sweet Potato Pageant and attending a cookout at the family home of a former school superintendent. She went back to her neat, white wood-frame house and was never seen again. Police came looking for her when she didn’t show up at Irwin County High School the following Monday. They found the clothes she wore to the cookout but not her.
The case is Duke v. State, No. S19M0969.