- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

OCILLA, Ga. (AP) - Attorneys for several media organizations asked a judge Thursday to lift a gag order in the case of a slain Georgia high school teacher who vanished nearly 12 years ago.

Superior Court Judge Melanie B. Cross said she expects to rule in about a week. Her order prohibits attorneys, investigators, potential witnesses and even family members of the victim and suspects from publicly discussing the slaying of Tara Grinstead.

Grinstead went missing from her home in rural Irwin County in October 2005. Her disappearance went unexplained for more than a decade until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last month announced it had arrested 33-year-old Ryan Alexander Duke on charges that he killed the former teacher at Irwin County High School.

The judge issued her gag order soon thereafter. On Thursday, Cross heard arguments from attorneys representing three groups of newspapers and television stations challenging her order, saying it’s overly broad and infringes on free speech rights.

Leslie Gaither, an attorney representing The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB-TV and The Associated Press, noted in the courtroom Thursday that a court clerk cited the gag order in refusing to open court records that are typically public documents. Cross said she would order those records unsealed.

When a second suspect, Bo Dukes, was charged March 3 with concealing a body, evidence tampering and hindering the apprehension of a criminal in Grinstead’s disappearance, authorities cited the judge’s gag order in declining to discuss his arrest.

S. Derek Bauer, an attorney for WMAZ-TV in Macon and WXIA-TV in Atlanta, told Cross she has tools to protect Duke’s rights other than a broadly worded gag order.

“All we know is that there has been press coverage, and as we know, that is not enough” to justify the order, Bauer said.

Also challenging the gag order were the Telegraph of Macon, Valdosta Daily Times, the Tifton Gazette and the Moultrie Observer, represented by an attorney for the Georgia Press Association.

John Mobley, a public defender representing Duke, initially requested the gag order. He told the judge Thursday he opposes lifting the order and gave her copies of 79 news articles written since Duke’s arrest. Mobley said media coverage of the case has been “constant and pervasive.”

Even with the gag order, Mobley said he’s not sure Duke could have a fair trial in Irwin County.

“The horse is probably already out of the barn,” Mobley said.

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