Defendant testifies he falsely confessed to killing teacher

May 16, 2022, 10:45 PM | Updated: May 17, 2022, 1:36 pm
FILE - An image of Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Ga. Ryan Duke, charged wit...

FILE - An image of Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Ga. Ryan Duke, charged with murdering Grinstead, a popular high school teacher who vanished in 2005, went on trial Monday, May 9, 2022, with prosecutors and defense attorneys clashing over whether the jury should believe the defendant's confession to investigators. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor, File)

(AP Photo/Elliott Minor, File)

OCILLA, Ga. (AP) — The man standing trial in the killing of a Georgia high school teacher who vanished in 2005 took the witness stand Tuesday and testified that he gave a false confession to investigators.

Ryan Duke faces an automatic sentence of life in prison if he’s convicted of murdering Tara Grinstead, whose disappearance from her rural Georgia home remained a mystery for more than a decade until Duke and another man were arrested in 2017.

Asked in front of the jury Tuesday by defense attorney Evan Gibbs if he had murdered Grinstead, Duke replied: “I did not.”

Duke’s testimony in Irwin County Superior Court directly contradicts his recorded statements to Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents five years ago, when Duke said he broke into Grinstead’s house to steal money for drugs and fatally struck her when she startled him.

“I was stealing from her purse and she snuck up on me,” Duke told GBI agents in a video shown to the jury last week. “She snuck up on me and I hit her. It was reactionary. I ran. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Duke told agents he tried calling Grinstead’s house from a payphone after he ran, and when she didn’t answer he returned to the scene to find her dead. He told investigators: “I can’t lie. I can’t live with myself I’m so sick of this.”

The account Duke gave from the witness stand was drastically different.

Duke said the night of the killing in October 2005 he was woken up by his friend with a similar last name, Bo Dukes, in the mobile home where they were living.

Duke testified: “He said he killed Tara.” He said Dukes then showed him Grinstead’s purse and wallet.

Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison after a jury convicted him in 2019 of helping Duke remove Grinstead’s body from the house and burn it in a pecan orchard. Dukes denied killing Grinstead and wasn’t charged with murder.

Defense attorneys for Duke have said he gave a false confession under the influence of drugs. When prosecutor J.D. Hart asked Duke on cross-examination why he would have told such a lie to investigators, Duke said he knew that his friend had already killed Grinstead and he was afraid.

“I was prepared to take the blame for something I did not do,” Duke said.

Dukes was also called to the witness stand Tuesday but he declined to answer attorneys’ questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The murder trial opened last week more than 16 years after Grinstead was last seen leaving an evening cookout in rural south Georgia. Grinstead, who taught history and was a former beauty queen, was just 30 when she went missing.

Before Duke’s confession. her family held out hope that she might return home safe.

Though her body was never recovered, investigators matched Grinstead’s DNA to bone fragments recovered in the area where Duke told investigators he and his friend had cremated her.

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Defendant testifies he falsely confessed to killing teacher