Hamilton Herald Masthead Hamilton Herald


Front Page - Friday, December 13, 2019

Craft’s practice spurs legal debate

Once accused of child sex crime, she now helps only clients she believes innocent

Criminal defense attorney Tonya Craft says there’s a line she’ll never cross as a lawyer: Represent someone she believes is guilty.

This might seem to fly in the face of the U.S. Constitution, which grants the accused the assistance of counsel in criminal prosecutions. It’s certainly rankled some of Craft’s colleagues, who she says insist she’s “not a real attorney.”

But she has good reasons for practicing law the way she does, Craft says.

Accused in 2008 of sexually abusing three young girls in her home, Craft endured a devastating two-year ordeal in which she was arrested, tried and convicted in the court of public opinion as the media spread her name, face and word of her alleged crimes across the nation.

Craft also lost her home, job, custody of her children and visitation rights with her daughter, who was listed among the victims.

During Craft’s trial in Ringgold, Georgia, prosecutors said she fondled children in her home multiple times while they were in first and second grade. Craft’s attorneys insisted their client, who was a kindergarten teacher at Chickamauga Elementary when the accusations were made, was innocent. She was the target, they argued, of overzealous law enforcement and vindictive parents who were upset about her scolding their children.

The jury found Craft not guilty of all 22 charges of child molestation, aggravated sexual battery and aggravated child molestation, though the nightmare lingered for another six months as she fought to regain custody of her children.

Now a lawyer, Craft represents those who have been charged with the same crimes she was accused of committing. However, she works only on cases in which she says she believes the accused is innocent.

Craft says her reasons should be self-evident and are no different from when she prosecuted child sex crimes while interning at the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office during law school.

“I believe you should go to prison if you abuse a child,” she explains. “I’m not a lawyer because I want to win cases; I’m a lawyer because I want the truth to prevail. I’ve even had religious families say, ‘Pray for us.’ I told them, ‘I’ll pray for the truth to come out.’”

That said, the truth can be elusive, and lies masquerade as honesty. So, before Craft takes a case, she requires every potential client to convince her they’re innocent. This involves meeting with her in person, as well as taking a polygraph with a man who’s worked on child sex crimes with the FBI.

Craft also insists on a follow-up interview that she says she uses to root out inconsistencies. “There have been people who thought I would fall for their story hook, line and sinker because I was innocent,” she adds. “So, I talk with everyone twice, and if someone says something different the second time, I’ll point it out and say, ‘Help me understand the discrepancy.’

“I talk with people like I don’t believe them. And if they become defensive, that’s a red flag.”

Craft knows it’s the jury’s responsibility to decide whether the accused in a criminal case is guilty or not guilty, and that it makes its decision only after hearing the prosecution and the defense present the known facts. But she has her own ways of discerning the truth, she says.

“I don’t know how someone who would hurt a child thinks, but I do know how someone who’s been falsely accused thinks,” she points out. “I consulted on the case of an individual in Florida who had lost custody of his boys, and when I would listen to him talk, it was like listening to myself.”

Craft also listens closely to how people word things.

“People will say, ‘I didn’t do this. I want you to get me off.’ I was offended when people would say, ‘You didn’t do this; you’ll get off.’ I’d say, ‘I didn’t do this, so I won’t be getting off. I want people to know I’m innocent.’”

Craft’s private brand of due process has scared off a few dubious parties, she says. Whenever someone offers to pay her money on the spot to become their attorney, Craft says she tells them to wait 48 hours before asking her to represent them.

“I say, ‘I don’t want to work on your case if you did anything wrong. And you wouldn’t want me working on your case because I wouldn’t be able to do a good job.’ And there have been people I’ve never heard from again.”

Craft jokes that while her approach to selecting clients works for her ethically, it’s a terrible business plan. “I’ve watched checks I needed walk out the door,” she says. “I might end up sleeping on a park bench because I haven’t made any money, but at least I’ll be sleeping.”

While Craft says she does her best to discern whether a potential client is guilty or innocent, she admits she could be duped. The thought only reinforces her resolve.

“My husband said I’m going to be devastated the first time one of my clients is convicted. Not that I want a client to be convicted, but I wouldn’t be devastated because being convicted doesn’t make someone guilty,” Craft says. “What would knock me to my knees is if I help someone, and there’s a good outcome, and then I find out they actually did something.”

Although Craft has explained her reasoning to other attorneys, she says colleagues in the criminal defense bar have criticized her decision, mainly because of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantees of a right to counsel.

But others in her profession say Craft is free to turn away anyone who seeks her counsel. Alex Long, a professor with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Law, is among those who have said Craft can legally practice law as she sees fit.

Long says once a lawyer agrees to represent a client, he or she has a duty to diligently advocate for that client within the bounds of the law, regardless of whether the lawyer believes the client is innocent or guilty.

“There’s a long history in the legal profession of lawyers being willing to represent unpopular clients,” he explains. “And the rules of professional conduct encourage lawyers to represent unpopular clients. The fact that a lawyer represents a client does not mean the lawyer endorses the client’s actions.”

However, there are no laws requiring an attorney to represent any client who walks in the door, Long adds.

“There are plenty of lawyers who make it their professional mission to only represent certain kinds of clients in order to advance a particular cause,” he continues. “So, while I think reasonable people can disagree about whether Tonya Craft should limit her practice that way, I don’t see anything unethical about her decision.”

“I respect attorneys who do things differently and I respect the Constitution,” Craft says in her own defense. “But I have my reasons for doing what I do.”

Forged by fire

Those reasons should be obvious, Craft says: After false accusations shattered her life, she endured two years of hell, was eventually exonerated and now stands beside others who are experiencing the same adversity.

But Craft entertained the notion of becoming an attorney long before her nightmare began.

“When I was a kid, I was vocal about the things I believed, and my parents would say, ‘You need to be a lawyer when you grow up,’” she recalls. “When other girls were reading love stories, I was reading legal thrillers. It’s always been an interest of mine.”

While working at a day care, Craft discovered she enjoyed helping the children learn. Plus, she was eager to start her career, so she decided to become a teacher instead of an attorney. “I thought the law might be something I’d do later,” she says.

In 2008, Craft was debating between earning a doctorate degree and going to law school when detectives appeared at her door and told her about the accusations levied against her. As she stood on her porch listening to their indictment, the application for the LSAT was laying on her kitchen counter, she says.

“I was a little older and a single mom, and I thought it might be time to go back to school,” she says. “That said, I probably would have gotten my doctorate if all the mess hadn’t happened. Given the age of my kids, it would have been very difficult to commute to law school in Nashville, and UTC had a Ph.D. program in education.”

After Craft reclaimed custody of her children, the law was the only option left as her experiences had stoked a fire of indignation against unjust prosecution, she says, and forged a deep resolve to help those who were experiencing the same thing.

Craft’s children were still young, and she was single, so she participated in their activities during the day and then commuted to night school in Nashville. She often returned home at 2 a.m. and awoke at 6 a.m. to prepare her children for class. “I was tired for four years,” she says.

While in law school, Craft interned at the district attorney’s office and became a listed Rule 31 Family Mediator to help families resolve custody issues. She then launched Tonya Craft Consulting to work with people around the country she says she believed were falsely accused of molesting children.

But Craft didn’t become an attorney until late 2018 when she passed the Tennessee bar exam on her third try.

Craft acknowledges the irony of a teacher having trouble passing a test. But she says her issues with the bar exam were a combination of nerves and the incongruities between her experiences with the legal system and what her professors had taught in law school.

“The bar is not about how the law is applied in real life. I would write down what had happened in the courtroom and get it wrong,” she explains. “I had to unlearn those things.”

After passing the bar, Craft took the oath of her new profession in January in Judge Christie Sell’s courtroom and then changed the name of her firm to Tonya Craft Legal.

While Craft was thrilled about achieving a major milestone, the day had a bittersweet quality, as it marked the end of one career and the beginning of another. “I would love to still be teaching, although I also love what I’m doing now,” Craft says.

Eleven months later, Craft celebrated her first win as the lead attorney in a case when authorities dropped charges against one of her clients. She calls it a true miracle. “I was able to meet with him and tell him the news,” she says. “We cried and hugged. It was a blessing to be a part of that.”

Newfound purpose

Craft says her passion for her practice differs from that of attorneys who are idealistic but inexperienced.

“Some attorneys come out of law school ready to change the world. Then reality hits them and they become jaded,” she says. “But I’ll have that passion until I die because I had a personal experience with the judicial system before I went to law school.”

Craft acknowledges her intimate encounter with reality sets her apart from many of her fellow litigators and can benefit her clients. “When I’m preparing a client for trial, I know what they’re facing. I sat in a courtroom and listened to people say terrible things about me, and I had to control myself and not belligerently stand up and act crazy,” she says.

Craft also had to remain calm while testifying during her trial. She says coaching her clients to do the same is rarely easy.

“When someone is being nonchalant or arrogant, I tell them they can’t do that. And when they say their ex-wife is a bitch who wants to put them in jail for the rest of their life, I say, ‘I understand where you’re coming from and how you feel, but tone it down because the jury is going to judge everything about you, including the look on your face.

“I know what I’m talking about,” Craft continues. “If a client says, ‘My ex is going to testify against me,’ I say, “My ex testified against me. He was going to send me to prison for 1,200 years, and we eat dinner together now, so get over yourself.”

Craft is nothing if not blunt, a quality she says is conducive to being a criminal defense attorney. But she’s also empathetic, which she says can be advantageous during mediations involving custody issues.

This empathy partly grew out of Craft’s tribulations after the trial. Following the verdict, Craft and her ex-husband, Joal Henke, locked horns over the custody of their children. As that battle raged, Craft filed a $25 million lawsuit against her accusers, including Henke.

The trial for custody was scheduled to take place in Hamilton County in November 2010. But even as Craft reassembled the shattered pieces of her life, she says she felt like she was being placed on trial all over again as old allegations resurfaced and Henke announced plans to put their children on the stand.

“It had to stop, so we sat down and I said, ‘Look me in face and tell me you think I did this.’ He told me he knew I hadn’t,” Craft says.

Henke’s admission reduced Craft to tears, she says, and helped her to realize her anger was unproductive. “I experienced instant forgiveness,” she says. “I can’t explain it. I wish I could bottle it and sell it because I’d make millions of dollars.”

After reaching a joint custody agreement with Henke, Craft dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice in December 2010.

“I wanted everyone to know I was serious,” she says. “How could I tell my children I had forgiven their father if I was trying to sue his pants off? And since the day my kids were born, I have only wanted what was best for them, and that was for me to not be angry.”

Craft draws on this experience when she’s overseeing a mediation, telling the sometimes bitter and stubborn parties that they can dislike each other and be angry, but they have to decide if what they feel is more important than the well-being of their children.

“My goal as a mediator is to help people communicate. If they don’t reach an agreement but leave communicating better, that’s a win,” Craft says.

Although Craft is willing to discuss her past – she detailed her experiences in her 2015 book, “Accused” – she’s focused on what lies ahead. Her hope is that she’ll be able to provide people she says have been wrongfully accused of abusing children not only her services as an attorney but also a team of hand-picked experts and investigators.

“I had to build my own team. I hired and fired attorneys; I hired and fired experts,” she says. “It was difficult and frustrating but it helped me to be able to do what I’m doing now.”

Craft knows she’s fortunate. Beyond her acquittal, regaining custody of her children and her new career, she’s free of the stigma that often clings to people who have been acquitted of child sexual abuse. Although the past occasionally strikes panic in her heart – as it did when a new friend asked her to do a favor that involved her being alone with the woman’s daughter – she bears no scarlet letter. And she sees purpose in that.

“I believe all of this happened for a reason. But I wish the Man Upstairs had picked someone else,” she says. “People have told me, ‘God only gives you what you can handle.’ And I said, ‘Then He’s confused me with somebody else.’”