A highly publicized child molestation trial and weeks of acrimonious court proceedings could deter parents from bringing suspected abuse cases forward in the future, local officials said.
"I do have a concern about children that are victimized and the families coming forward in the future," Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said. "Will they be willing to take a chance that their child will be put through the same scrutiny and the same process that we've just seen?"
A five-week trial that captivated a small community and divided families ended May 11 when a jury found Tonya Craft, a former Chickamauga schoolteacher, not guilty on 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery.
Lookout Mountain Judicial District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said the way Ms. Craft's defense team portrayed the families of the alleged victims in court could cause people to think they will be treated similairly and to shy away from reporting an incident.
After the verdict, defense attorney Demosthenes Lorandos accused the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit of judicial misconduct during the trial and poorly conducted interviews with the children.
"We need to make sure that this never happens again," Dr. Lorandos said. "Sloppy interviews. Corrupt judicial process. Ridiculous last-minute falsified, fraudulent evidence. Terrible interviews with children. Ridiculous rulings on evidence."
Some media outlets, Mr. Franklin said, were biased toward the defense and portrayed the accusers in a negative way.
"This will result in child victims and their supportive family members refusing to come forward for fear of a similar portrayal in the public," he said in a statement faxed to media outlets May 14.
But a psychology professor who specializes in violence and victimization of children said those fears might be unwarranted.
All the publicity in a high-profile child molestation trial actually makes the public more informed about the judicial process and could help increase cases reported, said Sherry Hamby, who teaches at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
"No matter what the outcome, research has shown it could actually increase help seeking," Dr. Hamby said.
Local authorities, believing the prosecution presented a strong case, said they were disappointed with the verdict. Chris Arnt and Len Gregor, the assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Ms. Craft, have declined to talk to the Chattanooga Times Free Press since the trial ended.
However, Mr. Franklin, in his faxed statement, blamed media reports for the outcome.
Trial coverage "created an environment hostile to the State's ability to receive a fair trial and portrayed the victims and their families in a false and negative light," he said in the statement.
It's a common reaction to blame the media in cases like Ms. Craft's, said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Whichever side loses a high-profile case ... one of their favorite scapegoats is, 'the media ruined my case,'" he said.
The Craft case will be talked about for years, and people will be divided about the verdict, he said.
"But it's not going to stop anyone from bringing allegations," he said.