Former Chattanooga police officer Benjamin Dessalines, arrested in 2018 for sexual battery, pleaded no contest to a lesser charge shortly after he and the city settled a civil lawsuit filed last year by his accuser.
Dessalines was arrested on Nov. 29, 2018, after allegedly taking a woman caught shoplifting to his apartment, fondling her and telling her he wanted to have sex with her.
He was initially charged with sexual battery and kidnapping, but the kidnapping charge was dismissed during his preliminary hearing — the stage in which prosecutors lay out the evidence against the defendant — because Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom didn't believe the evidence met the law's elements of kidnapping.
That was because, Statom said at the time, the woman testified that Dessalines didn't physically force her to go inside his apartment or get into his car. That was something Dessalines' defense attorney, former Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern, elicited while questioning the woman on cross-examination. As a result, only the sexual battery charge was sent to the grand jury.
The grand jury could "review my decision as well and [could] decide my decision was in error," Statom said at the time.
The grand jury agreed with the decision, and Dessalines was later indicted only on the sexual battery charge.
By December 2019, the case had been set for a June trial, according to Hamilton County court records. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, trials have been put on hold.
In the meantime, Dessalines' accuser filed a $300,000 civil lawsuit against him and the city of Chattanooga.
The lawsuit was later settled for $15,000 from the city and an undisclosed amount from Dessalines.
"The settlement resolves issues that were disputed and all parties agreed that it was not an admission of any wrongdoing of any kind," Dessalines' attorney Bryan Hoss said in an email. "The settlement simply ended the civil case and is subject to a confidentiality agreement."
Upon settlement, the woman's attorneys contacted the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office to let prosecutors know that "she didn't want to go forward with the criminal case and was happy for him to plead to a lesser charge," DA spokesman Bruce Garner said.
The woman's attorneys declined to comment Tuesday.
A successful trial would have been difficult due to the woman having made inconsistent statements, according to prosecutors, such as later stating that Dessalines didn't force her into his car or apartment.
On July 1, Dessalines pleaded no contest to a charge of "assault: offensive touching," according to court records.
Pleading no contest means a defendant accepts the conviction but does not admit guilt.
Criminal Court Judge Steelman sentenced Dessalines to six months of unsupervised probation and granted him judicial diversion, an alternative form of punishment available only to those who do not have prior criminal records. Once the six months are up, and if Dessalines doesn't violate the terms of his sentence, he can ask the court to dismiss the case and have his charges expunged from the public record.
If he violates the terms of his probation, however, the court will have the opportunity to withdraw the diversion, and he will not be able to have the case dismissed and expunged.
Dessalines was investigated by the Chattanooga Police Department's internal affairs division and fired on Jan. 31, 2019.
Contact Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.