Just one day after the verdict in the Tonya Craft trial, officials Wednesday expressed optimism that the community will quickly reunite.
The 21-day trial in downtown Ringgold drew a sharp battle line between those who believed she was guilty and those who didn’t.
“I don’t see there being any long-term effects on the community from this trial,” said Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb, who sat in on three days of testimony.
But the trial placed the judicial system in a bright spotlight, including national media attention, and that will have some consequences, he said.
“(The Lookout Mountain Judicial system) will definitely need to look at the future and how they do things,” Cobb said. The circuit serves Catoosa, Walker, Dade and Chattooga counties.
On Tuesday Craft, 37, a former Chickamauga kindergarten teacher, was found not guilty on 22 counts of child molestation and sexual battery involving three children. More than 40 witnesses took the stand during the trial in Catoosa County Superior Court before Judge Brian House.
Cobb said the jury made the right decision because the prosecution’s case had “leaks.”
The seven-man, five-woman jury held deliberations Monday from about 2:30 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. It resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. Tuesday and reached a verdict about 4 p.m.
Cheers erupted outside the courthouse as people watched the verdict on cell phones and television sets at nearby businesses.
According to a poll on catwalkchatt.com, about 80 percent believed Craft would be found not guilty.
“So far I haven’t talked to anyone who felt she was guilty,” Cobb said. “This was sort of a wake-up call that you can be accused of anything.”
Cobb said there will be some “ill feelings” towards Judge House and the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, but that “people will get over it.”
After the media blitz, which involved many of the nation’s major news organizations, many are left wondering how the community will rebuild and move on from the trial.
Ringgold attorney McCracken Poston, who has handled a number of high-profile criminal cases, including the Brent March crematory case, had similar opinions to Cobb.
Poston said a change needs to be made in how child interviews are conducted for child molestation trials.
“Lots of times in these cases we get a confession from the defense,” Poston said.
Poston said the “key” to changing the child interview process is by making it completely free from influence by anyone.
“There’s been a lot of talk about a ‘witch hunt,’” Poston said, “but the more frightening scenario is that both sides had good intentions. When you have a bad protocol for child interviews, even people with good intentions can cause horrible things to happen.”
He said what made this case unique was the strong backing for Craft, who attracted a large contingent of supporters. A supporter website called “Truth for Tonya” registered nearly 60,000 visitors. Her supporters packed the courtroom on many days.
“A lot of times it’s hard to even get people’s family members to show up for child molestation cases,” Poston said. “There’s always a bad presumption of guilt.”
He said he doesn’t feel the community will see any long-term effects due to media attention and the rift of support.
“I think Ringgold came out looking pretty good,” Poston said. “There was a jury of independent thinkers and I think they carried the duty well.”
Poston said the most important step for the community to remember when moving on is the children involved in the case.
“These girls are all innocent children and I hope the community will continue to let them be innocent children,” Poston said.
Catoosa County Commissioner Ken Marks said that while the trial was “the talk of the town” for the last few weeks, he believes the community will move on.
“I think any time you have child molestation allegations it’s a terrible thing, especially with authority figures,” Marks said. “There were a lot of people in the community who knew people on both sides and that made things especially hard.”
Asked about the financial impact the trial will have on the county, Marks said the county is “on course” for its Superior Court budget.
“We’re actually a bit below the budget,” Marks said. “We have about $40,000 more in the budget this year and the trial has not affected our budget.”