published Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Winchester official guilty of sexual battery

Cheyne Ryon Stewart
Cheyne Ryon Stewart

A Winchester, Tenn., city councilman who in 2011 flatly denied allegations of sexually assaulting a woman at his apartment was found guilty of a misdemeanor during a jury trial Thursday.

Franklin County Circuit Court records show Cheyne Stewart was convicted of attempted sexual battery, a lesser charge than the original 16-count indictment lodged against him in 2011. The jury also fined Stewart $2,500.

Following his arrest, Stewart had refused to step down from his Winchester Council post, and on Friday maintained his stance.

"That's up to the mayor and council," Stewart said. "The way I read the charter, I don't believe it [resignation] is necessary."

Stewart declined Friday to comment further and referred questions to his lawyer, Chattanooga attorney Jerry Summers.

Summers said he was pleased the jury reduced the conviction from the most serious felony, a class A, to a misdemeanor.

Stewart could be sentenced to up to 11 months and 29 days in jail when he is sentenced June 11.

Stewart was 24 when he was indicted on three counts each of aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery, rape and sexual battery, plus criminal conspiracy to commit aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery and criminal conspiracy to commit rape and sexual battery, court records show.

At the time of Stewart's arrest, authorities said the investigation started in October 2010 after the victim sought medical treatment following her encounter with Stewart and co-defendant Jefferey Michael Kennedy at Stewart's First Avenue residence in Winchester.

Because Stewart is a councilman, the sheriff's office led the investigation to avoid a conflict of interest for the Winchester Police Department.

Summers said Friday that Kennedy, also 24 when the indictments were issued, took his own life afterward. Summers said he hoped the verdict in Stewart's case would give the Kennedy family "some comfort."

Summers said he believed "there was no proof" to convict Kennedy and that he possibly would have given testimony leading to a not-guilty verdict for Stewart.

"I think he would have been our best witness," Summers said.

Steve Strain, assistant district attorney in the 12th Judicial District, said Friday the victim testified she'd had sex with Stewart in the past but had broken off an intimate relationship.

She testified she smoked some "K2," a synthetic form of marijuana, at Stewart's home that night. She became sick and didn't remember anything until the next morning, feeling pain from what she thought was a sexual assault, Strain said.

Stewart didn't take the stand, but Strain said evidence in the case included text messages from Stewart to Kennedy about the woman getting sick. One text, sent after Kennedy had left the residence, said, "'I thought we was going to tag team the ho,'" Strain said.

Summers said he likely will file a motion seeking to change the conviction to a nonsexual assault, so Stewart won't have to register as a sexual offender.

Summers also said he planned to study the Winchester charter to see how to advise Stewart on his council post.

Neither Winchester Mayor Terry Harrell nor City Administrator Beth Rhoton could be reached for comment Friday.

Stewart, a native of Cowan, Tenn., and a 2005 graduate of Franklin County High School, won his City Council post in 2009, according to the city's website, Stewart's Facebook page and related 2009 campaign pages.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Subscribe to his Facebook posts at facebook.com/ben.benton1 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/BenBenton.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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