The Railroading of Tonya Craft

About 20 years ago, American prosecutors across the country were engaged in a large number of witch hunts, better known as the day care sex abuse hysteria. Innocent people found themselves charged with monstrous crimes of abusing dozens of children, and even though almost all of the charges were bogus and, indeed, ridiculous on their faces, compliant juries convicted them and judges sent them to prison for life.

Janet Reno, before she had the opportunity to murder 80 people at Waco while U.S. Attorney General, made her prosecutorial career in Miami, Florida, pushing these faux charges. (Hillary Clinton was the main force behind Reno becoming AG, as Clinton said that Reno was “good on children’s issues.” Indeed, that says more about Clinton than it does Reno, although Reno’s lies and legal abuses are well-documented in Dorothy Rabinowitz’s book, No Crueler Tyrannies.)

After a while, these prosecutions fizzled out. The courts overturned most of the convictions, and after the fiasco in Wenatchee, Washington, in which the charges were so ridiculous that even the mainstream news media turned on the authorities, we heard little about these cases. Most of us who kept up with these police and prosecutorial abuses and outright lies told by government agents (none of whom ever was punished for their misdeeds) hoped that this sorry episode in U.S. History would fade like the Salem Witch Trials.

Unfortunately, we are seeing what could be the beginning of Round Two of this hysteria, and it is happening near where I grew up, Catoosa County, Georgia. (I grew up in neighboring Walker County, and both counties are contiguous to Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located.) One would have hoped that the media had learned something – anything – after Round One of the hysteria, but as we have seen in the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case, the press still is utterly craven and wholly owned by police and prosecutors.

I give all of this as an introduction to the prosecution of Tonya Craft, an elementary schoolteacher in Chickamauga, Georgia, who on Monday, April 12, goes on trial for allegedly molesting young girls at her home during a sleepover for one of her children. I have followed this case at a distance, but the more I research it and the more I look into it, the more I get the sensation that I am peeling away the rotten skin of an even more rotten onion that is absolutely rancid at the core.

Before I go further, I point out that this case started with a flourish, as WTVC-TV in Chattanooga provided an absolute stinkbomb disguised as a “news” story. First, the reporter refers to a child as “the victim,” so there can be no doubt at all in this story where WTVC stands, as there is no “alleged” in there. (That was how the mainstream media covered the Duke case; Crystal Mangum from the beginning was the “rape victim,” not an accuser.)

When I was a newspaper reporter more than 30 years ago, our editors told us time and again that in a story in which someone is charged with a crime, we were to use “alleged” in every situation until there was a conviction or a guilty plea. There were no exceptions. Unfortunately, Channel 9 operates with much lower standards.

In this story, the reporter then goes to the office of the Chickamauga City Schools to demand Craft’s firing. (You really have to see the Youtube video here to get a picture of just how bad a broadcast this really is, and how it was utterly dishonest and prejudicial.)

While other news organizations in the Chattanooga area have done a somewhat better job, nonetheless no one is asking the very hard questions, which means that the prosecutor and the judge in this case are being given a free ride in their tag-team attempt to railroad Craft, when, they need to be ridden out of town on a rail. Let me explain.

First, while Tonya Craft might be portrayed as an unsympathetic person because she is on her third marriage, she has a lot of very loyal friends who have put together a number of fundraisers and who will vouch for her character. Another friend has put together a website, and others in the community have spoken out in Craft’s favor about the accusations.

Furthermore, there are a number of issues that the prosecution faces that simply don’t add up, and this is my second point, in which there already has been massive prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. The first red flag – and it is a huge one of Michael Nifongian proportions – has been the prosecution’s hiding of exculpatory evidence.

Nifong’s case utterly fell apart when defense attorneys revealed in open court that Nifong had conspired with a forensic scientist, Brian Meehan, to hide evidence that would have been favorable to the defendants. The prosecution had claimed that such evidence did not exist and that they had turned over all relevant material to the defense when, in fact, that was not true, and Nifong paid for that lie by losing his law license. (He should have gone to prison, but because prosecutors generally are not held accountable for lying, it is virtually impossible for a prosecutor to be charged, convicted, and imprisoned no matter how bad his or her misconduct.)

In the Craft case, we see a similar situation, one that apparently Judge Brian House (more on him, later) has let slide. Some of the children attending the sleepover told police that nothing happened, which obviously would be of interest to the defense – and should be to the prosecution.

However, the way that prosecutor Chris Arnt handled this situation was to do the following: first, he told the police not to give any material to the defense. When the attorneys approached the police, they were told that Arnt had the material they were seeking. However, when the attorneys came to Arnt, he told him that material did not exist. (Arnt later was forced to admit that he did have that evidence, but the fact that he would lie about it at the beginning demonstrates just how far he is willing to go to have an innocent person convicted.)

When questioned about it, Arnt engaged in self-pity and more belligerence:

Assistant DA Arnt told the judge he did give the sheriff and other witnesses such instructions, because he had told defense attorneys the information they wanted would be provided through the discovery process.

“Instead, all we got was all these subpoenas,” he said angrily.

The judge in this case, Brian House, does not enter it with clean hands. First, and most important, he was the attorney for Craft’s first husband in their 1998 divorce. In other words, it was his job as an attorney to demonize Craft for the courts. There is no way that he cannot be prejudicial in this situation, not having opposed her directly in a court of law.

Second, there was a very disturbing exchange during a pre-trial hearing, as reported by The Chattanoogan:

If defense attorneys for former Chickamauga Elementary School teacher Tonya Henke Craft want to tell jurors a potential prosecution witness isn’t credible because she was prohibited from continuing to treat alleged victims after ignoring defense subpoenas, they’ll have to bring in the judge who removed her.

“You can bring (Hamilton County Circuit) Judge (Marie) Williams in here if you want to,” Superior Court Judge Brian House of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in North Georgia ruled late Monday afternoon. “But (the therapist’s) credibility is a question for the jury, not for some judge in Tennessee.”

Given that House was licensed in Tennessee and practiced there before becoming a judge, he demonstrates a lack of respect toward a former colleague and a judge. Furthermore, judges are supposed to vet the “expert witnesses,” not leave it up to juries to do that work. Juries are supposed to determine guilt and innocence, not credentials.

Third, House has ordered the ultimate pre-trial prosecutorial weapon to be put into place: a gag order. Now, prosecutors will claim that such an order binds them, but in reality, by the time the order has been set, the prosecution already has been able to get in its licks. As in the Duke case, where a gag order severely hamstrung the defense for several months, the purpose of this order was to keep Craft from defending herself, as it was issued just before she was to be interviewed on the air:

A former Chickamauga elementary school teacher scheduled to go on trial in Catoosa County Superior Court on March 15 for sexual abuse charges now faces a possible contempt citation and jail time for talking to reporters about the allegations against her.

Tonya Henke Craft, accompanied by attorneys, was being interviewed on the radio shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday morning when she learned that a gag order had been issued prohibiting her from talking about the case.

The gag order, signed March 3 by Superior Court Judge Brian House of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in north Georgia, prohibits both Ms. Craft and her legal representatives from making or authorizing any statements to the news media.

So, when we have a judge with an obvious conflict of interest, the imposition of a gag order meant to quiet only the defense, and the hiding of exculpatory evidence by the prosecution, I am going to become very, very suspicious. However there is another reason that I believe that the charges are false and that this is a railroad job: her attorneys believe she is innocent.

At this point, someone will say, “Come on, Anderson. All attorneys think their clients are innocent.” That is not true, not by a long shot. The vast majority of people accused in state courts are guilty as charged, and most attorneys operate under that knowledge.

However, in my own conversations with lawyers, what I have found is that when they become convinced that their clients really are innocent, they become involved in their cases in a way they never will do for a person they believe to be guilty. And in this case, I know that the attorneys absolutely believe in Craft’s innocence.

Now, I have not talked with any attorneys or anyone from the defense or anyone involved with the case. My sources have been outside that circle, but nonetheless I have written on legal issues for many years and I can smell a railroad, and I can read between the lines as to what attorneys are doing and saying.

Fifth, Craft twice passed polygraph tests. During the early stages of the investigation, officials had hinted that if she took a lie detector test and passed, they would not press charges. However, the day she was to take the test, the police changed tactics and had her arrested, instead.

In August, 2008, Craft and her attorneys employed the services of the highly-regarded polygraph examiner Charles E. Slupski, director of the American International Institute of Polygraph. She was given two tests, one pertaining to her child and one pertaining to the charges of molesting other children. She passed both tests.

Unfortunately, House would hear none of it. He denied a defense motion to have the results of the polygraph tests admitted into evidence and declared that he did not want to hear anything about a lie detector test during the trial.

I am very familiar with the previous hysteria trials and wrongful imprisonments and have written about them, especially about the case on the Edenton Seven, as well as a number of articles on the Duke case. The majority of the faux abuse cases came up because a parent of a child wanted to engage in score-settling, and the Craft case has plenty of that, as the original charges were brought by the mother of one of Craft’s former kindergarten students. (I do know more about this situation, but am not at liberty to say what it is, except to note that just as in the Edenton case, it all began with a vengeful parent making accusations that turned out to be false.)

As in the Duke case, the Craft charges are tied into what I call the “courthouse culture,” in which people who practice in particular counties tend to form cliques and to band together. In Durham, North Carolina, the “courthouse crowd” supported Nifong, not because they actually believed the charges were true, but rather because they knew they could be shut out of doing their work if they offended the wrong people.

For example, the late Kirk Osborn was the first attorney for Reade Seligmann, and he filed a motion to have Nifong removed as a prosecutor. He also put the exculpatory evidence for Seligmann on the Internet after Nifong refused even to glance at it. Nifong retaliated by telling prosecutors that no clients of Osborn would be permitted to engage in plea bargains, effectively cutting him off from almost all his clients in Durham County.

Likewise, my sense is that the Catoosa County courthouse crowd is not going to speak out and will support House and Arnt in whatever they do. Given the huge amount of negative pre-trial publicity that has attended this case, and because the prosecution will resort to the tried-and-true mantra of “Believe the children,” I suspect House and Arnt believe they can railroad through a conviction.

If that happens, I would not be surprised to see the conviction overturned on appeal, but by then the damage will have been done. Craft would have served many years in prison and likely would have been the target of physical attacks for being a “child molester.” The police, the judge, and the prosecution know this full well, and because none of them will face any sanctions no matter how much they lie or falsify material, they will do whatever they please.

Tonya Craft already has been ruined. She lost her job, has not seen her daughter for two years (she has supervised visits with her son), has lost her home, and has had to endure the kind of stress since she was charged two years ago that takes years off one’s life. In that sense, Arnt and House already have won, for their purpose all along has been to ruin a life, which is what prosecutors do when they go after an innocent person.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to stop this judicial juggernaut. Craft will be facing trial next week and I only hope she is found not guilty. However, just the fact that she has been charged as a child molester has taken its toll on her life. The prosecution knows it, the judge knows it, the media knows it, but who cares of an innocent life is ruined?

However, as we have seen countless times before, the media always is ready to run over the cliff with the prosecutors, and no matter how many times the prosecution is discredited, there always is another reporter ready to serve as a PR mouthpiece for a dishonest state official. And it always will be that way, for like the Bourbons, the media learn nothing, and they forget nothing.

WILLIAM L. ANDERSON teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland. He can be reached through his blog.