The former kindergarten teacher who was acquitted of charges that she molested three young girls, including her own daughter, said she is not upset with the allegations made against her, in fact she said she feels sorry for the children.
"I feel bad for them. I have no anger, any bitterness. I only have sympathy, for the children that I've spent my entire career fighting for," Tonya Craft told ABC News.
The Catoosa County, Ga., Superior Court jury returned its verdict Tuesday after nearly two days of deliberation in the trial of the 37-year-old. The former Chickamauga Elementary School teacher faced 22 charges of child molestation, aggravated sexual battery and aggravated child molestation.
Craft, who now plans to study law, said that this case should not only be a warning to teachers across the country but also an example to stand up and do the right thing.
"I was not going to let a system railroad me and hurt these children. So absolutely this could happen, as I said, to anybody anywhere at any time," Craft said.
Since her arrest in May 2008, Craft has been fired from her job, lost custody of her daughter, lost her home and moved with her husband to Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., about 30 miles north of where she was on trial in Ringgold, Ga.
Craft said following the acquittal she is going to reunite with her family and fight for custody of her daughter "immediately."
"When somebody says about winning, I said 'there is not a winner.' There can be restoration and there can be awareness for others to not go through this, but there's two birthdays for my daughter that I will never get back," Craft said.
Craft's mother said the family spent more than a half a million dollars fighting the charges.
"We mortgaged our home, we threw out all of our savings and 401k's, we sold stock," Betty Faires said.
The verdict was met with cheers from supporters outside the courtroom. The families of the children who testified against Craft hid from cameras after the teacher was set free.
Craft Acquitted of Charges"I can't imagine looking into my child's face and telling her 'I'm sorry you told the truth and you did what you had to do and you're very brave but the system has failed,'" Miriam Boyd, a spokeswoman on behalf of the families, said.
During the trial the prosecutors alleged that for nearly two years Craft fondled children at her home multiple times, starting in August 2005, all while they were in kindergarten and first grade.
But some court observers said the prosecutors went too far.
"I think that this says that Catoosa County needs to take a real hard look at how they investigate child molesting, child molestation charges," Dennis Norwood, from Chattanoogan.com, said.
Craft had maintained that when her daughter's friends spent the night at her house, it was nothing more than an innocent sleepover. But the parents of other children said it was something far more sinister: They claimed Craft molested their kids several times.
The allegations sparked a trial that shocked the small community of Ringgold.
When asked how the town will begin to heal now that the trial is over, resident Barbara James said "To be honest I really don't know."
Children on the Stand: Terrible Truth or False Memory?
All three girls, now 8 and 9 years old, took the witness stand during the trial. People in court said the awful testimony included graphic pictures and doctors arguing about whether the girls were violated.
"Whether it really happened to them or not, in their minds they believe it did. It was just, I can't tell you, it just tore my heart out to just sit there and have to watch these little girls testify," Norwood said. "And to see their private parts put up on a screen for the jury to look at. It was just, you know, it was just -- I hope I never have to see anything like that again."
Craft's lawyers argued that the girls were coached by parents who suddenly had it out for Craft. They argued that the family of one of the girls was upset that Craft wasn't giving the girl better grades in class.
Children on the Stand: Terrible Truth or False Memory?According to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, children are especially susceptible to the power of suggestion when it comes to memories.
"There's been some attention given to the question of false memory," Welner said on "GMA" Tuesday. "Children can take in the suggestion of parents or authority figures and want to please them. Because parents are convinced something happened, they want it to [have] happened.
"I'm not saying this is a false memory. What I'm saying is the jury has a powerful question on them going both ways," he said.
One of their fathers told jurors that he wasn't lying that it happened -- and neither was his daughter.
"And I'll never forget the look on her face or in her eyes -- she stopped everything she did and looked me dead in the eye and said 'I know it did, Daddy,'" said the father.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.