When a fundraiser for a North Georgia kindergarten teacher charged with child molestation was held at a Chattanooga restaurant, owner Troy Sutton lost business, he said.
"I got a bunch of hate e-mail," said Mr. Sutton, one of the owners of Food Works. "Several e-mails ... saying they're very upset that we would associate ourselves with an accused child molester and would never eat at our restaurant again."
The reaction was overwhelming, he said, even though all he did was rent a meeting room to supporters of former Chickamauga kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft. He said he didn't even know what they were meeting about.
Such community anger is common in such cases, said Ronald Carlson, University of Georgia law professor. The public reacts "vigorously" and negatively to cases alleging child molestation, regardless of the accused person's innocence or guilt, he said.
"That's why, in these cases, it's a real challenge to the system to ensure the defendant (receives) a fair and impartial jury," Mr. Carlson said.
Ms. Craft faces 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated child molestation and child molestation involving three children, records show. Her trial is set to begin Monday.
Ms. Craft has maintained her innocence since she was charged on June 11, 2008. In a local television interview, she said she has lost her job, home and custody of her two children since the charges were filed.
Her friends also have professed her innocence in several venues, including a Web site and a Facebook account called "Truth for Tonya."
"She's being treated unfair," said Jennifer Sullivan, one of Ms. Craft's friends.
CHALLENGES ON BOTH SIDES
The nature of accusations of child sexual abuse is a challenge to both sides of the judicial process, Mr. Carlson said.
Prosecutors want to be careful not to bring groundless cases because these charges can be extremely damaging for someone falsely accused. But society also wants to protect young victims, so it demands vigorous prosecution when a case arises, he said.
"These sorts of cases, like few others, present a challenge to the prosecuting authority to make sure they have the right defendant," he said.
Child sexual abuse began to be recognized as a problem in recent decades, and some early cases were taken too far, said Sherry Hamby, a psychology professor at Sewanee: The University of the South who specializes in violence and victimization of children.
"In the '80s, it started to get carried away," Dr. Hamby said, explaining that, when such cases became public, they received a lot of media attention.
Before the 1960s, textbooks said one in 1 million children were sexually abused, she said. Now research shows sexual abuse is a common problem and can affect one in six girls and one in 10 boys, Dr. Hamby said.
The latest data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that in 2007 Tennessee had 3,677 reported cases of sexual abuse and Georgia had 1,080.
Though fewer cases unjustly are prosecuted today, the heightened media attention to those cases distorts the overall numbers, Dr. Hamby said.
"(At) any given time, there are probably dozens of cases of (actual) child sex abuse," she said. "But if you're the unfortunate one that gets picked up (by the media), it makes that much tougher for the due process procedures."
FIRST VS. SIXTH AMENDMENT
After Ms. Craft began defending herself in local media outlets, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Judge Brian House issued a gag order in the case on March 3.
A gag order puts the U.S. Constitution's First and Sixth Amendments -- free speech and the right to a fair trial -- at odds, said Marc Harold, a Washington, D.C., attorney and former University of Mississippi law professor.
"This is the government saying you can't speak," he said. "The First Amendment in very few cases allows that, but gag orders seem to be one (of the permissible cases) because of the overriding sense of the Sixth Amendment."
When someone charged with a crime tries to speak outside the courtroom, potential jurors must be protected from drawing their own conclusions before the trial begins, he said.
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Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...