OCILLA, Ga. – The judge assigned to the case of a slain Georgia teacher who vanished nearly 12 years ago acted too broadly by ordering investigators, potential witnesses and family members to keep silent outside the courtroom and by sealing the court record from public view, said an attorney for Georgia news organizations.
Superior Court Judge Melanie Cross has moved swiftly to restrict information in the high-profile case unfolding in rural south Georgia. Irwin County High School teacher Tara Grinstead vanished from her home in October 2015. Authorities last week announced a break in the case, charging 33-year-old Ryan Alexander Duke with murder. Authorities say he killed Grinstead during a burglary.
Grinstead was a history teacher at Irwin County High School and three-time Miss Tifton beauty queen. Duke was a student at the school at the same time Grinstead taught there.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday that agents were searching a nearby pecan farm for Grinstead's remains. Later that day, the judge issued a gag order barring attorneys, law enforcement officers, potential witnesses or relatives of the victim and suspect from speaking publicly about the case. The order has prevented authorities from providing further updates.
Nancy Ross, Superior Court clerk for Irwin County, told The Telegraph (http://bit.ly/2mTXIm1) of Macon that she had been "verbally instructed" by the judge to seal court records in the case as well. The written order itself does not mention sealing court records from public view.
Cross wrote in her order that Duke's "right to a fair trial may be prejudiced" by public statements made by parties in the case outside the courtroom.
"The judge's order, however well intentioned, is overbroad," David Hudson, an attorney for the Georgia Press Association, told the Macon newspaper.
Hudson said Georgia judges need to hold a public court hearing before restricting statements by anyone other than attorneys. With parties silenced and the court record sealed, he said, the public has no way to find out about scheduled court proceedings that generally must be open for citizens to attend.
The public is "essentially kept in the dark about a matter that is of grave importance because of the severity of the crimes alleged," Hudson said.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the Macon newspaper is The Telegraph, not The Macon Telegraph.