Defense attorneys for a man accused of shooting his girlfriend's stepfather to death in 2015 believe his victim started the fight, and they want to introduce the victim's criminal history to prove it.
Cordarius Robinson, 29, acted out of self defense when he opened fire on Timothy Harris in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2015, and he needs to show that Harris was the "first aggressor" when he stands trial in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Jan. 23, his lawyers argued Wednesday.
One way to do that is through Harris' criminal record, they say, which includes two arrests for assault and a child rape charge in 1997 that was reduced to sexual battery.
Prosecutors, however, aren't sold on the idea.
They say it's harmful and inflammatory to show jurors that information in their second-degree murder case against Robinson. Plus, Robinson's attorneys have to make their case in court before they can raise a self-defense claim, prosecutor Leslie Longshore said.
"It's supposed to be [inflammatory], that's the whole point," said Hank Hill, one of Robinson's defense attorneys. "It shows a tendency on behalf of this gentleman to be an aggressive person."
One of Harris' family members could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but this was not the first time attorneys and witnesses have referenced his behavior in the case.
On the night of the shooting, Kiana Varnell said she received a call from her sister that Harris was beating up their mother, so she and her boyfriend, Robinson, drove over to Harris' home in the 1600 block of Olive Street.
Harris, 47, was pulling up in a white truck when they arrived, Varnell said, and she got out of their car to ask him about the alleged violence. But Harris got angry, claimed everyone was lying and tried to grab her arm when she moved away, Varnell said.
By that time, Robinson had gotten out of their car and suggested he and Varnell leave, according to prior testimony. But as they walked back, Harris rammed his truck into their car three or four times, Varnell previously testified.
Because the driver's door was damaged, Varnell tried to climb in the passenger's side with Robinson, according to her testimony. But she never made it fully into the vehicle and Harris came over to the passenger's side and began attacking Robinson, she said.
Varnell said she ran to the front of their vehicle and didn't witness the shooting but heard multiple gunshots. She saw Robinson with a gun after she got in the car and fled the scene.
A medical examiner later said Harris was shot eight times in the arms, chest and shoulder.
At a preliminary hearing in 2016, a Chattanooga investigator testified that he spoke with another officer who said they didn't believe Robinson and Varnell's vehicle was struck multiple times.
"Supposedly that's not what he's going to say [at trial]," defense attorney Lloyd Levitt said Wednesday. "But we need to know the extent of what he is going to say."
Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman didn't rule Wednesday on whether jurors could hear about Harris' record. Attorneys often debate pretrial about what should be entered into evidence.
He scheduled the next court date for Jan. 11 at 1:30 p.m.
Robinson is out on bail after convincing Steelman to reduce his $150,000 bond.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.