The trial of the man accused of killing a south Georgia teacher might be done in absolute secrecy.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Melanie Cross heard arguments from lawyers after several groups of media organizations filed motions appealing her gag order in the Tara Grinstead case.
Thursday's arguments revealed another, very surprising order the judge signed last month saying the entire trial should be done behind closed doors.
WSB legal analyst Phil Holloway calls the order a bombshell. “I’m absolutely shocked.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire career. I’ve spoken to lawyers who’ve practiced much longer than me. Unanimously, every single person believes that this is an unlawful order.”
Holloway adds that he does not think the order was an accident. “It appears to be very clear; it says the public is to be excluded from the process.”
When asked what the worst case scenario could be if the order is not overturned, Holloway says, “The defendant goes into the judge’s office, closes the door, enters a plea of guilty, stipulates to a factual basis without giving any details, and goes to prison without the public ever knowing what happened to Tara Grinstead.”
In October 2005, Grinstead disappeared from her home and investigators had scant clues to find her.
More than 11 years later, Ryan Duke, a former student at the high school where Grinstead taught history, was arrested and charged with her murder. A classmate, Bo Dukes, was also charged with helping him destroy and hide the body.
“The fact that this case is high-profile really adds to the argument that the public and the media have a right to know what’s going on,” Holloway says.
The public, Holloway explains, has a first amendment right to access criminal trials. “There is a recognized public interest in knowing what goes on in our courts.”
Holloway says the Supreme Court struck down a similar DeKalb County order years ago. “In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court slapped down a DeKalb County judge, and said that trial courts are obligated to take very reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials.”
He says reporters will likely fight this and win.