Jury finds man not guilty of murder in teacher’s death

OCILLA, Ga. (AP) — A jury on Friday found not guilty of murder a man accused of killing a popular high school teacher who disappeared from her hometown in rural Georgia in 2005.

Ryan Duke had told investigators that he killed Tara Grinstead and helped burn her body. But when he took the witness stand during her trial, he insisted that she was innocent.

The jury acquitted Duke of felony murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and robbery, but found him guilty of concealing a death, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Grinstead’s disappearance in rural Irwin County remained a mystery for more than a decade until Duke’s confession in 2017.

He told Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents that he broke into Grinstead’s home in October 2005 hoping to find money to steal and buy drugs. She was startled when Grinstead appeared behind him and punched and killed her, she said.

Duke took investigators to a walnut orchard where he said he and a friend, Bo Dukes, burned her body. GBI agents testified at trial that Duke knew things about the case that had never been made public.

Duke’s defense attorney, John Merchant, told the jury that it was Dukes who killed Grinstead. Dukes was convicted in 2019 of helping to move and burn Grinstead’s body, but was never charged with murder.

Duke testified that his confession was false. He said Dukes woke him up in the mobile home they lived in together in 2005 and said he had killed Grinstead and showed Duke the teacher’s purse and wallet. Duke lied to investigators because Dukes had already killed one person and was afraid, he testified.

Duke’s murder trial began last week, more than 16 years after Grinstead was last seen leaving a cookout in rural South Georgia. Grinstead, who taught history and was a beauty queen, was only 30 years old when she disappeared.

Before Duke’s confession, his family had hoped that he would be able to return home safely.

Although her body was never found, investigators compared Grinstead’s DNA to bone fragments recovered from the area where Duke told investigators he and his friend had burned her.

The jury deliberated Thursday afternoon and for about two hours Friday morning before returning a verdict, the Journal-Constitution reported.

Duke will be sentenced on Monday. Grinstead’s family asked for more time to prepare statements to read at sentencing.

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