DALTON, Ga. - Tonya Craft said she cannot hear a doorbell ring without having her heart race, as she is reminded of the June 2008 day when detectives knocked on the door of her North Georgia home, changing her life forever.
Craft, a former Chickamauga Elementary School teacher acquitted of child molestation charges last year, spoke Wednesday evening at Dalton State College about her experience.
"Before this happened, I didn't think you could have the words truth and justice independent of each other," Craft told more than a hundred students and othes packed into a classroom with standing room only. "I was of the mindset if you did nothing wrong, you can never be arrested. It was a very harsh reality for me to find out otherwise."
Craft told students she is determined to change the system and educate people so the "hell" that she endured will not happen to someone else. She plans to go to law school and establish a nonprofit to help set minimal standards of training for investigators who question children in molestation cases.
She spoke for over an hour, describing the years of being separated from her two children, what she described as a botched investigation and a biased judge, her fight to prove her innocence, the trial where she was acquitted and then the legal battle to get custody of her children.
"This (legal) system has turned into about somewhat of a game," she said. "It's a game on both sides; it's about winning. ... But I wasn't just fighting for me. I was fighting for my two children and the other two children who had been victimized."
Investigators and prosecutors should have recognized the children's allegations were not spontaneous and didn't corroborate each other, she said.
Her voice broke, and she had to stop to regain her composure several times when she talked about being separated from her children.
"The worst day of my life was when my daughter took the stand - I hadn't seen her in two years," Craft said. "This has taught me to treasure every moment. It is an absolute honor to read a book to my two children every night."
The experience, as terrible as it was, has made her a better person, she said. "I can't be bitter and angry - I've been angry, yeah - but I'm not angry anymore about what happened," she said.
Colton Taylor, a freshman at Dalton State majoring in criminal justice, said listening to Craft changed the way he looks at the justice system and his chosen future profession. Taylor said he had not heard about Craft's case before attending the talk.
"I didn't think that could happen, not this close to home," he said, shaking his head. "You hear about it in the movies and stuff, but not here. It gives me a whole new perspective."
After she was acquitted, Craft filed a $25 million lawsuit against many of the people involved in the case. One of her attorneys, Cary King, said Craft dropped the lawsuit without prejudice late last year, but can refile it within six months. King said they have not decided whether they will or who they would name in the new suit.
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-980-5824.