Irwin County Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt appears set to attempt to seat a jury of Irwin County residents in the trial of Ryan Alexander Duke. Duke is charged with the 2005 murder of Irwin County High School teacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead. The defense asked for a change of venue, the State did not oppose the change, yet the judge has declined. In my view, this is a mistake.
This is a case I have followed closely since the beginning. Way back in what seems like another lifetime I was a police officer in the tiny South Georgia town. I grew up in the area and have even practiced law there. Things are just different there. There's really no other way to put it. It's a great place to live and work but it simply has its own unique character. And the same thing holds true for the local legal system. But a unique local "flavor" can't outweigh due process and absolute right that a defendant has to a fair trial nor can it outweigh the public's strong interest in a process that yields a result that it can have confidence in.
In Georgia, criminal defendants have a constitutional right to be tried in the county where the crime is alleged to have occurred. Defendants can waive this right however and seek a trial elsewhere if a fair and impartial jury can't be seated in that county. At any given time, the population of Irwin County is only about ten thousand people. This case touched nearly every person in Irwin County – personally – in one way or another. It was the local citizens who went door-to-door and field-to-field conducting searches for Tara Grinstead in the days, weeks, and months following her disappearance. It's the local citizens who talk about the case day in and day out in homes, restaurants, offices, and other gatherings. It's the locals who read the local paper when leaked excerpts from the GBI case file were published that described Ryan Duke's incriminating statements to law enforcement on the day of his 2017 arrest. It was the local community that loved their high school history teacher. It's the local community that's locked in a continual debate about whether the authorities have charged the right person. On top of all this, the pretrial publicity has been – and will continue to be – extreme and pervasive. Opinions are strong. The bottom line is that nearly everyone in Irwin County has likely heard of the case and surely a great deal has actually been personally affected by it in some way.
Besides helping to ensure a fair trial, there are practical reasons why moving the trial just makes good sense. Chief among those practical reasons is this: in the event of a conviction, the issue of venue will be a major part of the appeal and changing venue removes that consideration. This is a strategic reason why the DA most likely did not oppose the change of venue. He doesn't want to have to try this case twice. In the event of a conviction, the DA needs as few appellate issues to deal with as possible.
Moving any trial is no small feat. Logistically it's been described as more difficult than taking a three ring circus on the road. It's expensive too. Irwin County just doesn't have the financial resources that a larger jurisdiction has and moving a trial the likes of this one could cause major financial and other upheaval in terms of government resources. None of these considerations outweigh the right to a fair trial, however, and none of them outweigh the public's right to have confidence in the integrity of the process.
Philip Holloway, WSB legal analyst, is a criminal lawyer who heads his own firm in Cobb County, Georgia. A former prosecutor and adjunct professor of criminal justice, he is former president of the Cobb County Bar Association's criminal law section. Follow him on Twitter: @PhilHollowayEsq The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.