Nearly nine years after being acquitted on child molestation charges, former Chickamauga kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft was sworn in as an attorney Friday afternoon, Jan. 18, in Hamilton County, Tenn.
America learned Tonya Craft’s name while watching her fight for her freedom in Catoosa County Superior Court in 2010. She was accused of molesting three young girls, including her daughter, and was ultimately found not guilty on all counts — 22 in all — after a long, community-dividing trial.
Now, nine years later, she’ll be spending a lot more time in courtrooms after being sworn in as an attorney, hell-bent on defending the falsely accused.
“Once I was sworn in, it was like ‘yeah, I can finally breathe’,” Craft said of the Jan. 18 ceremony. “It was really emotional, but in a good way.”
The day of the verdict, May 11, 2010, Craft stood surrounded by her four-man defense team and a full courtroom of spectators as each “not guilty” verdict was read aloud from the booming voice of long-time Clerk of Court Norman Stone.
Later that evening, during a celebration at her parent’s East Ridge, Tenn., home, Craft said the ordeal renewed an interest in potentially going to law school. She said she wanted to help others get through situations like hers.
Now, after regaining custody of her children, publishing a book, consulting on cases, and finishing law school and finally conquering the bar exam, Craft can be an advocate for the falsely accused in a full-time capacity.
“It was a process,” Craft said of her law degree pursuit. “After four years of commuting to Nashville and it taking me three times to pass the bar exam, it was tough.”
Craft said the bar exam hurdle was difficult for her, but that didn’t divert from her from her goal of becoming an attorney.
“I don’t care. I am not ashamed of it,” Craft said. “I’m not ashamed of that because I didn’t quit. … I didn’t pass it the first or the second time, but I did the third.”
Although her accomplishment was a big deal, Craft said, after the celebration was over, she switched right back to mom mode.
“After the swearing-in and the celebration, my daughter was cheering at a basketball game, so I changed out of those clothes. I put on sweats and a sweatshirt and went out to watch her,” Craft recalled. “The most important thing is being a mom, so I got done and then went to that game she was cheering at.”
Now that everything is official, Craft is focused on building her office and getting to work on more cases involving the falsely accused.
Since her acquittal, she’s already consulted on numerous cases and served as a family mediator.
“I’ve already been mediating,” Craft said. “I’ve been mediating for about four years now and I’ve been consulting for about seven. My office is Tonya Craft Legal, so I’m going to do mediation, consultation, and litigation.”
Lately, Craft said, she’s worked on cases in Hawaii, New Jersey, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.
A man who was acquitted in the first case Craft consulted on even made the trip up from Florida to see her sworn in.
“We ended up getting his kids back after the criminal trial when he was acquitted, and he we was able to be here,” Craft said. “That was just great.”
Also in attendance during the swearing-in were two of her attorneys from her criminal case: Dr. Demosthenes Lorandos and Cary King. Having both with her during the ceremony was special and fitting for the trio.
“Doc and Cary were there with me and they went with me from my office over to the courthouse,” Craft said. “It’s funny because the last time we were all together in the car was when we were going to the courthouse for the verdict. We talked about how very different the atmosphere was.”
Craft said she and Lorandos have written a chapter together in a textbook about forensic interviews and investigations focused on examples of how they are handled properly and improperly.
Craft said she’s working with another of her attorneys, Scott King, to create a special team to work cases like hers.
“Scott and I actually are working. … Our goal is to make it where anybody in the nation that is falsely accused can have a great team come in and defend them,” Craft explained. “We want to build what I wish I could have found — a whole team to come in and defend me. I couldn’t (at the time), so I had to put this team together and build it. We want to have the team already built. It’s really neat because all these people who worked on my case, I’m pretty much working with all of them in certain capacities now.”
Recently, Craft has been working with a Los Angeles-based production company on a documentary that will chronicle her story.
“The documentary folks were there filming at the swearing-in,” Craft said. “They filmed me getting ready that day and then we got in the car and went driving around Chickamauga. We were in front of the house that I lived in with the kids. We went over to the school board building and by the elementary school and just kind of talked about stuff.”
In addition to having attorneys, clients, and supporters in attendance, Craft said the best part was having her children and husband there.
“The kids were there. They’ve been there through the whole thing and they’re real excited and proud,” Craft said. “They were really sad for me when I didn’t pass the bar the first time. … That was the first test I’ve ever failed in my life. I cried for two days. It’s only offered twice a year. So essentially, I studied for a year and a half for that thing. I was so over it. It was great having them there with me when I finally got sworn in.”
Although the documentary is in production, a solid release date hasn’t been announced yet.
“For the documentary, I’ve been out to LA three or four times over the past year,” Craft said. “It’s going to be a six-episode documentary. The first few episodes are all the pre-trial stuff, the trial and verdict, and then right after it. The stuff they’re filming now, the swearing-in, is the first stuff they videoed in live time. They’re going to be back and filming some things over the next six to ten months. It’ll be probably about a year before it airs.”
Craft said that when it came time to choose a production company to work with in LA, her daughter flew out there with her to sit in on meetings.
“She said she wanted to help make that decision, which was fine because it is kind of ‘our’ story, you know? It’s not just mine. She and I have done a lot of this together, so it’s been really special. I’m blessed and I’m excited.”
Reflecting on it all
Nine years is a long time to process the events that took place — how they affected Craft, her children, and how they’ve altered the course of her life.
“When you go through something really difficult, you have to accept that things are never going to be the same again,” Craft said. “It’ll never go back to the way it was. Like with passing the bar — I feel like I have been punched in the face a thousand times. I’ve been knocked down, but it’s not about getting knocked down, it’s about making sure you get back up. There were times, especially during the trial, when I wasn’t scared of getting knocked down. I was scared there was going to be a time when I couldn’t get back up.”
The way her case played out really created a less-than-stellar perception of both Walker and Catoosa counties, and the local legal system. However, Craft said she won’t let that keep her from visiting the area.
“There’s a small group of people that did a really bad thing and made some really bad choices,” Craft said. “Those choices affected me, affected my children, other people’s kids, other adults. But still, Chickamauga, Catoosa County, all that area … they are good people and I go there frequently. I have friends there and I’m not going to shy away from going there. Any kind of black eye that’s been put on that community has been done by the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit (which prosecuted the case). There are some people there that have done some bad things, but the community is a great community.”
Craft’s groundbreaking case was one of the biggest trials to occur in Catoosa County, and it launched her into the public eye as a poster woman for the falsely accused.
Although the case continues to open a lot of doors, Craft said things could have easily been different.
“Everything that’s happened and the opportunities that I have, the blessings that are happening, I appreciate greatly,” Craft said. “But I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t want it. I would love to be teaching kindergarten and for nobody to have heard of Tonya Craft except little kindergarteners. I would love that, but that’s not the case.”