Attorneys for 11Alive's parent company, Tegna, as well as other news media outlets, headed to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to challenge a gag order placed by the judge in the Tara Grinstead case earlier this year.
A gag order was placed by Superior Court Judge Melanie Cross back in February, with a revision to the order issued in March. The order states that attorneys, prosecutors, potential witnesses, court personnel and family members on both sides are not allowed to make any statements to the media on this case.
The judge cited concerns that defendants would not get a fair trial due to all of the media coverage.
This case before the state Supreme Court could set precedence about gag orders, and the public’s right to know, and the suspect’s right to a fair trial.
The state Supreme Court filed into the courtroom at UGA’s law school to hear 11Alive’s attorney Derek Bauer tell them that it’s wrong that no one can find out what’s going on with the Tara Grinstead murder case.
The murder suspect, Ryan Duke, accused earlier this year of murdering Grinstead 12 years ago, then hiding her body, could be years away from going to trial, Bauer said.
But the judge in the case isn’t letting anyone involved with it tell the victim’s family or reporters or anyone else anything about the case—for fear that if any information about the case gets out, it might harm the suspect’s rights to a fair trial.
“Our way of life under the Constitution doesn’t allow the government to say you can never speak on these topics, period,” attorney for 11Alive, Derek Bauer, said.
But the suspect’s public defender, Michael Gowan, asked the state Supreme Court to keep the lid on the case, so his client is not "tried in the media."
Justice David Nahmias said there is no evidence that the news media reported anything to harm the defendant’s right to a fair trial, and he questioned why a gag order would have been imposed for no reason other than extensive news coverage which, he said, was not, in and of itself, prejudicial to the defendant.
“You normally need at least some evidence of bad stuff happening before you restrain people,” Justice Nahmias said.
Gowan wasn’t budging.
“All we’re asking is that the court consider [keeping] the gag order so that we can preserve our client’s right to a fair trial before an impartial jury,” he told 11Alive after the hearing.
Bauer told reporters that this is one gag order that keeps the public from watch-dogging the case, which, he said, is worse than any potential harm to the defendant.
“The community in Ocilla, in particular, has an intense interest in how this case is handled. They want to be sure that we have the right guy, that the prosecution is done cleanly and correctly. This case has been a mystery in that community for over a decade. And the public has a profound, Constitutional interest in seeing that justice is done. And by silencing the key purveyors of justice--law enforcement--from talking about it, it’s really cut off the public’s right to know,” Bauer said.
In October 2005, Grinstead left the Sweet Potato Festival headed to a cookout with friends. Afterwards, she disappeared.
Police were able to find her cellphone, her car and her dog at her Ocilla, Ga., home.
There were no signs of a struggle and her purse and keys were no where to be found. After fruitless searches and interviews, investigators finally made a break in the nearly 12-year-old case and arrested and charged Ryan Duke with Grinstead's death.
The Georgia Supreme Court has until March 16, 2018 to rule on whether to keep or remove the gag order.