The son of a Chattanooga pastor is not guilty of statutory rape, a jury decided Friday.
In the otherwise empty gallery outside Hamilton County Criminal Court, where Ronnie Powe Jr. stood trial for three days, Powe’s family wiped their eyes as they hugged and kissed him.
Powe, 28, had been accused of masturbating and briefly performing oral sex on a 15-year-old boy on Feb. 15 after a Chattanooga police officer found the two in a car together behind the old East Lake Middle School.
Powe and his family declined to comment about the case.
Though Powe’s defense attorneys acknowledged that the encounter took place, they repeatedly stated that Powe did not know the teen’s true age and believed him to be older.
Under Tennessee law, the aggravated statutory rape charge requires “knowingly penetrating a person” older than 13 but younger than 18.
“We felt that the jury understood what we were arguing. We said at the very beginning of this case, ‘Our client is a victim.’ I think the jury agreed,” said Bill Speek, one of Powe’s attorneys.
Throughout proceedings, Powe’s attorneys referred to the profile the boy had created on an adult black gay website, where Powe first came in contact with him. In the profile, the teen said he age was 18.
Under Times Free Press policy, the names of alleged sex crime victims are not published.
Powe is the son of Ronnie Powe Sr., the pastor of Chattanooga’s United Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. In his opening statements, Speek described Powe as a closeted, gay black man struggling with his homosexuality while serving in his father’s church.
“The night he was arrested was a life-changing night. He lost his position at his church. He suffered tremendously. At least he doesn’t face going to jail. He can now start rebuilding his life,” Speek said.
“This case was a human tragedy on so many different levels, and we’re just glad it’s over for everyone involved,” said Gerald Webb, Powe’s other attorney.
Assistant District Attorney Brett Alexander said after the verdict that Chattanooga police Investigator Kevin Willoughby had put together a “very solid case.” But he added that Powe’s case showed the value of the jury system.
“The community is able to make the determinations in cases that are dependent on the knowledge of the defendant themselves.”
“The jury listened to all of the facts,” Webb said. “It’s so easy when someone is charged with this type of offense for everyone to just go along with the herd. It’s so much easier to say ‘Hey, he’s guilty.’”