Crime

Tonya Craft Trial Update: 'Wasn't That a Suggestive Question?' 'So What?'

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Last week the trial of Tonya Craft, the Chickamauga, Georgia, kindergarten teacher accused of molesting three girls, featured testimony from her alleged victims. So far this week the jury has heard from the mothers of two alleged victims, the mother of another former student, and two interviewers who talked to the children. According to the mothers, the allegations against Craft arose after a girl wrote "sex," "kissing," and "love" (or possible just "sex" and "kissing"; accounts vary) in chalk on the ground at a pool party. The incident evidently led the mothers to question their children, who told them about the "girlfriend/boyfriend game," which involved kids putting their hands down each other's pants. The initial investigation focused on those reports, and only later did anyone accuse Craft of abuse. How exactly that happened is unclear. Craft's defense attorneys are making the case that her accusers and/or their mothers had pre-existing grudges against her and that suggestive, repetitive questioning of the children elicited false memories of abuse, as in the McMartin Preschool case and other molestation panics.

In earlier posts (here, here, and here), I have noted evidence that supports the latter argument. Here is some more evidence from Monday's testimony by the mother of the first child witness (as summarized by WRCB, the NBC affiliate in Chattanooga):

Witness says daughter spent the night at Tonya Craft's house more than once; her daughter said just once. Witness says daughter was wrong….

Testimony about time line and who did what does not match from this witness and Sherry Wilson [another mother].

Reason contributor William L. Anderson, whose blogging initially drew my attention to this case, notes that the same witness also testified that her daughter, an actress who has appeared in two movies (including one where she played an abused child), never had formal acting lessons. The girl's résumé says otherwise. This may seem like a trivial point, but whichever account is accurate, the contradiction suggests the witness is willing to lie when she thinks it's necessary.

The interviewers who talked to the girls seem unconcerned about asking them leading questions or continuing to ask about abuse when they've repeatedly denied that anything untoward happened. Here is WRCB's description of yesterday's testimony by Suzi Thorne, a forensic interviewer at Green House, a "children's advocacy center" in Dalton, Georgia:

Witness admits she introduced idea "bad touch" in interview. She says she wasn't suggesting something, just trying to get info.

Defense points out witness asked girl same question three times. Says she was clarifying.

Craft's lawyer noted that Thorne asked one of the girls "Did anything else happen?" 16 times during one interview. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, "she said that repeating the question helps make the child feel comfortable and share her feelings." Thorne said she failed to videotape or otherwise document the crucial moment when this girl finally said Craft had abused her. The defense therefore sought (unsuccessfully) to exclude her testimony about the accusations.

Stacy Long, the Green House interviewer who testified today, seems similarly blasé about the possibility that she might plant ideas in children's heads:

Witness says children are no more suggestible than adults.

Defense attorney asks witness to cite a study that shows children are no more suggestible than adults. She can't.

Defense attorney asks interviewer if she was asking girls "repeating" questions. Stacy Long says she was "clarifying."

Lorandos [one of Craft's lawyers]: "Wasn't that a suggestive question [you asked the girl]?"

Stacy Long: "So what?!"