Molestation case leads to emotional divisions

Molestation case leads to emotional divisions

March 6th, 2010 by Ben Benton in News

A child molestation case that resulted in a procedural squabble just days before it goes to trial illustrates the difficulties the accused and accusers endure when such volatile charges are leveled.

"There is nothing more difficult in law than any case where a child is an alleged victim," said Chattanooga attorney McCracken Poston, who is not involved in the case. "Simply being charged casts a shadow that can often be difficult to escape.

"On the other hand, too much publicity of unsubstantiated rumor and prejudgment can create too high expectations for the prosecution's case," Mr. Poston said.

Former Chickamauga Elementary School kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft faces 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated child molestation and child molestation involving three children, court records show.

Ms. Craft has denied the allegations since the day she was arrested by Catoosa County authorities and recently began a media tour to speak out in her own defense.

After she was charged June 11, 2008, Ms. Craft lost her job, home and custody of her two children, she said during a local television interview.

Her decision to talk publicly resulted in a gag order being issued Wednesday by Superior Court Judge Brian House, records show.

During a televised radio interview Thursday, Ms. Craft called her experiences as a defendant in the case a "nightmare."

Legal players outside the case say child molestation charges have a devastating impact for accusers and the accused from the moment they are filed.

Mr. Poston, who practices in Georgia and Tennessee, said "the difficulty begins at the first and remains throughout the case."

"Defendants have a harder time throughout, from sometimes even finding legal counsel to being able to pick a jury," he said. "Those waiting in jail for trial must be segregated from the population for their own protection.

"And all this happens to those who are merely charged," he said.

An added problem for teachers is that sexual predators often seek out such jobs to gain access to children, Mr. Poston said.

"At the same time, those who work with children and some difficult parents are in a dangerous position for false accusation," he said.

Stephen Hatchett, an assistant district attorney in Bradley County, said the child accuser also is put into a precarious position when molestation charges are filed.

Laws in some jurisdictions once allowed children to testify via closed-circuit cameras, but that kind of testimony violates the Sixth Amendment's right of the accused to face their accuser, Mr. Hatchett said.

"One of the biggest things with child molestation cases is your witness that is going to make or break your case, unfortunately, is a child who really shouldn't be in that position to begin with," said Mr. Hatchett, who prosecutes child sex crimes in Tennessee's 10th Judicial District.

Public outcry on behalf of the accused and the accusers begins as soon as charges are leveled, he said.

"The stakes are really high in these kinds of cases," he said.

A person convicted of molestation can lose their home, get listed on the sexual offender registry and serve significant jail time, he said. Prosecutors must be certain of their evidence before they bring charges, he said.

Ronald Carlson, a law professor at University of Georgia in Athens, said that, in most child molestation cases, "the truly guilty offender wants to crawl under a rug and hide."


Tonya Craft faces a hearing on motions Monday in Catoosa County Superior Court in Ringgold, Ga. Ms. Craft's trial is set for March 15.

Conversely, a savvy defendant might seek to try the case in the media to change opinions or limit the damage to their reputation and career, Mr. Carlson said.

Observers of a molestation trial probably will see defense attempts to impeach victims and challenge the validity of their accounts of events and their motives in making accusations, he said. Witnesses often are called to testify about the accused person's character and record of behavior.

On the prosecution side, cases can be strengthened if there are multiple victims and multiple incidents that occur over a period of time, he said.

"These sorts of accusations are extremely difficult for the citizen to deal with," he said.