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Ryan Duke found not guilty in murder of Tara Grinstead, only convicted on concealing death

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Featured From left: Attorney Evan Gibbs, Ryan Duke, and attorney Ashleigh Merchant. Photo courtesy of Philip Holloway/Printed with permission From left: Attorney Evan Gibbs, Ryan Duke, and attorney Ashleigh Merchant.

By Kristen Kitchens

On Friday morning, at 11:30 a.m., Ryan Duke was found not guilty by an Irwin County jury following 7 hours of deliberations. As expected following Ryan's admission, the jury did find him guilty on one count of concealing the death of another. Sentencing for the charge will take place Monday at 9 a.m.



The trial began last Monday, May 9, with the state and defense hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses, including GBI investigators, friends and family of Grinstead's, psychologists, and others involved in the case. The state accused Ryan of breaking into Grinstead's home on October 22, 2005, with a credit card and striking her, which led to her death. Ryan confessed in 2017 but recanted that admission just a few months later. The defense argued that Ryan's former best friend, Bo Dukes, was the man responsible for Grinstead's death throughout the trial. Ryan also testified that Bo admitted to the murder the morning after it occurred. While Ryan maintained his innocence in ever harming Grinstead, he said he was involved in helping Bo move Grinstead's body, watching him "light her on fire," and never reporting it to law enforcement out of fear.  Bo also took the stand but invoked his 5th amendment right and refused to testify. 




On Wednesday afternoon, witnesses' testimony ended in the Ryan Duke trial following six rebuttal witnesses called by the state.
Despite the effort from Ryan's defense team to call an investigator to the stand who could testify about a case in 2019 where Bo Dukes allegedly raped and sodomized two women, the motion was denied.

The defense team argued the investigator, Tyler Delgiorno, could provide information regarding the accusations and show why someone would be afraid of Bo. Throughout Ryan's testimony, he stated he was scared of Bo and knew he was capable of killing someone, "which was reason enough to be fearful."

Ashleigh Merchant, one of Ryan's pro bono attorneys, told the judge she did not intend to call Bo's alleged victims but wanted to be able to play the 911 call and allow the jury to be informed of the pending charges against Dukes. The testimony would have likely helped support Ryan's claims, with Bo's charges falling in line with statements Ryan gave about his former best friend's disposition during his testimony.

The charges Merchant referred to were filed after Bo was indicted on a dozen charges on January 15, 2019, including rape and kidnapping. Bo is accused of kidnapping two women on New Year's Day that year and taking them to his home, where he allegedly raped the women. He was also charged with pointing a shotgun at them and threatening their lives. At the time, Bo was out on bond for charges in the Grinstead case.

Merchant also fought to present video footage of the women jumping out of a window in Bo's residence, then running naked to a neighbor's home. Bo then left the scene, which led investigators on a four-day manhunt before being arrested at a family member's home in Irwin County.

Less than two weeks later, a grand jury in Warner Robins indicted him on charges including one count of rape; two counts of aggravated sodomy; two counts of kidnapping; two counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon; one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and four counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Dukes has yet to stand trial for the accusations, and has pending charges in Houston County for allegedly raping and sodomizing a woman at knifepoint in 2017.

After Judge Bill Reindhart stated the investigator would not be allowed to testify, the state announced six rebuttal witnesses they planned to call on their behalf. The first rebuttal witness was Garlan Lott, who told law enforcement in 2005 that Bo and Ryan had admitted to killing Grinstead just a month after her disappearance at a party in the pecan orchard. Garlan stated that the night the confession was given was the first time he had been at the orchard and went to "just hang out and drink alcohol."

Lott said that while he was unaware of any drug use at the party, he was sure there was.

During Ryan's testimony, he claimed to have been speaking with Garlan at the party when Bo walked up and told Lott they both had killed Grinstead and burned her body. However, Lott told the jury while he was at the party, Bo and Ryan were sitting in a vehicle, with him recalling Bo being in the driver's seat, while he was standing by the passenger side doo next to Ryan. Lott corroborated Ryan's testimony of the statement being made, but said he couldn't recall if Bo or Ryan had been the one to say it. "They both laughed [when the comment was made] in an agreeable manner," Lott testified.

The defense asked Lott if Bo was known to say "crazy and dark" remarks at times. Lott said yes and recalled Bo having a "darker sense of humor." Lott also said Bo was "more likely to have made the comment," and it would have "possibly stood out more if Ryan had said it, but it stood out either way."

Lott testified to meeting with his employer and his wife the day after the bonfire to tell them what Bo had said. When asked why he didn't report it to law enforcement, Lott explained he "didn't have the best reputation in Ocilla at the time" because he was "wild and partied a lot."

According to the testimony, Lott took his employer and two or three officers out to the orchard, and they looked around for burn piles, but didn't cover much of the area. The statement was then written down by his employer's wife and given to law enforcement. Lott said the GBI did not contact him about the admission until 2017 when Bo and Ryan were arrested.

Two of Grinstead's neighbors testified to rebut former testimonies regarding the possibility of Grinstead's vehicle leaving her home on the night she was killed. Two witnesses testified for the defense, claiming they did not see her car at her house the day after, with the state's rebuttal witnesses claiming the opposite. One neighbor, Susan Luke, said she was out of town the weekend Grinstead went missing, but when she arrived sometime between 5:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., she saw her vehicle at her home. Luke also said it was before dark when she got back to her house.

The defense asked the witness if she recalled telling GBI investigators in 2016 that she had returned home between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Luke testified that her memory was more accurate in 2016 than today, but knew it wasn't dark outside when she did.

A second neighbor also said she saw Grinstead's vehicle in her driveway that Sunday, but also said she had slept until 2:00 p.m. and couldn't confirm if the car had been gone before she woke up.

The following two witnesses, Clifton Benson and Zane Dill, both were called to take away Ryan's credibility by denying a statement he made during his testimony. When he lived with Bo in Fitzgerald, Ryan said Benson, Dill, and another individual came over to their home to visit. On that day, Ryan said he felt "a weird tension" and recalled the three guys sitting together in a love seat instead of the couch, which he said was "odd." According to Ryan, when the guys left, he asked Bo why their friends were acting "weird," and Bo replied, "I told them you killed Tara Grinstead."

Benson and Dill testified that they never went to a home in Fitzgerald where Bo and Ryan lived together, and Bo never told them Ryan Duke was Grinstead's killer. However, Benson told the defense that he was a drug addict at the time, so he possibly had forgotten.

An inspector with the GBI, Mitchel Posey, took the stand as the state's last rebuttal witness, testifying for over an hour on investigation techniques. While Posey was not involved in the case in 2005 or 2017, he was called explicitly by the state to discuss Ryan's confession.

Posey hit on several points, including that Ryan at times would "correct" the agent who was interviewing him. "This is extremely important because it tells me Ryan wants Agent Shoudel to get it right," Posey said.

The state completed its rebuttal witnesses with Posey's testimony, and the court went into recess until Thursday morning.

Around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, Defense attorney John Merchant began the defense's closing with, "Bo Dukes should be sitting in this chair, not Ryan. Bo Dukes should be on trial for the murder of Tara Grinstead, not Ryan." Merchant frequently brought up the words "common sense" throughout his arguments and said the verdict was an easy decision if common sense was used in deciding whether the state proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Multiple statements made by the defense's witnesses were discussed, including the fact that if Grinstead were home, she would have locked the deadbolt on her door, and it would have been impossible to break in with a credit card, an accusation made by the state. Merchant also pointed out that Ryan never owned a credit card.

A witnesses testimony placing Ryan at home "passed out from drinking" around 10 p.m. the night Grinstead was killed was mentioned, along with Grinstead's neighbors saying she had left her house in her car that night.


Bo Dukes was one of the most mentioned topics of the defense's closing, and they questioned why Bo did not testify. "The state tried to hide him from you. There were over 300 exhibits in this case, and they presented 35 witnesses to you. However, as their investigator even said, the larger the file - the less you know. It's not about the volume of the evidence; it's about the quality of the evidence. That is what is happening here in this trial. They are trying to hide all the evidence and all this stuff in a huge stack. If you look at the real evidence, you find very little and nothing that links to Ryan," Merchant argued. Merchant reminded the jury that there was no sign of struggle in the home and showed photos of Grinstead's residence taken by investigators when Grinstead was reported missing.


A testimony that helped the defense was an expert who testified that none of Ryan's fingerprints were found inside the home, in Grinstead's vehicle, or on the front door handle of her home. With the state's primary theory of motive being an attempted robbery and because none of Ryan's fingerprints were discovered in those locations, Merchant said jurors needed to use common sense to determine why.

John stated, "We are asking that you hold the state accountable for trying to hide this stuff. Do not make the same mistake the GBI made in 2005 by following unfounded leads. When Ryan walked in for the interview, they already had their answer. They were anxious for closure and blinded by that, refusing to look at the real details."

Ryan's second pro bono attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, closed, "He did not kill Tara Grinstead. He did not break into her house. He did not assault her. He is not the cause of Mrs. Grinstead's death. He did nothing to contribute to her death. He is not guilty to every single count in this indictment. We are here to ask you to seek the truth and seek justice in this case, and that would be a verdict of not guilty. At the start of this trial, I told you this case was about power. Ryan told you he felt powerless all those years. The state had the power to bring you evidence and proof, and they have failed to do that. You now have the power to do the right thing.



"You have the power to say that's not enough and that they didn't prove this case. Ryan did not do this. He did not kill Mrs. Grinstead. We all know who killed Mrs. Grinstead and Ryan told you who killed Mrs. Grinstead. The person who killed Tara Grinstead came here and held the fifth to his name, while Ryan got up here and withstood cross-examination with all of his stuff. He talked about being depressed and everything, you know, things no one should have to get up here and talk about. At the end of the day, you now have the power to make the decision in this case. We trust you, and we ask that you find Ryan not guilty."

The state followed, "He convicted himself with his own words. The man in that chair, Ryan Duke, confessed to you with his words. He confessed to you in his handwriting. He confessed to you with his actions. He confessed to you with his actions when he walked through the orchard in Fitzgerald. He confesses through his words and his writing, and his actions. He confesses through his DNA and his palm prints that he is the murderer, the killer, of Tara Grinstead. The monster he doesn't want to be and the monster he hides from everyone. He confessed to you. You all heard it."

Several pictures presented throughout the state's arguments were shown in their closing, including photos of the glove, the blood found on the comforter, and the rooms inside Grinstead's home. The state also told the jury that the defense's theory didn't make sense based on other evidence in the case.

"If they're going to tell you something else happened, then prove it. They can't because it didn't happen. It may be fun to talk about the conspiracies, but that didn't happen. Bo Dukes is not a good person, but who was best friends with him and lived with him before and after? The defendant," John stated.

The state also said Ryan "burned her like household trash."

After the state's closing, the evidence was handed over to the jury, and they began going through all the exhibits around noon. Around 5 p.m., the jury was released for the day and returned Friday at 9 a.m. to continue.

At 11:30 a.m., Judge Reindhart announced the jury had reached a verdict. Ryan's attorneys put their arms around him before the verdict was announced. Ryan was found not guilty of murder, aggravated assault, or burglary but was convicted on one count of concealing a death. 

The conviction carries a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum of ten years. Ryan has been in jail since his arrest in 2017, meaning he has already spent half the time of the maximum sentence. The judge could allow time served, freeing Ryan that day, or make him serve 1-5 years in prison before being released.

The hearing will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Monday. DouglasNow will announce the sentence and other details from the hearing on Monday afternoon.

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