Potential witnesses in a 2015 murder case said a lot of things Thursday about the late Timothy K. Harris: that he raped his 12-year-old stepdaughter, beat his wife on numerous occasions and had a violent personality.
Family members say it's a gross misrepresentation of a good family man by defense attorneys for the 29-year-old man charged with shooting Harris to death during an argument in his driveway on Halloween 2015.
But Cordarius Robinson's defense attorneys beg to differ: They believe Harris started the fight and that jurors need to hear about the 47-year-old's criminal history in order to understand a self-defense argument the attorneys plan to make at their client's trial on Jan. 23.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman hasn't ruled on the issue yet, and prosecutors, fearing the damage it would do their case, say Robinson's attorneys can't open the door to Harris' past unless they prove it before trial.
To establish someone as a first aggressor, the law says attorneys must use third-party testimony, so Robinson's team called Harris' wife and stepdaughter to the witness stand Thursday.
"I want to take you back to a time when you were 12," defense attorney Hank Hill asked Harris' stepdaughter, who is now 32. The Times Free Press does not name sex crime victims. "Was there a physical assault on you?"
Harris' stepdaughter said she was washing dishes in the family's home in Chattanooga in 1997 when Harris picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and carried her into a bedroom. Locking the door behind him, Harris then took her clothes off and raped her, the woman said.
"You were 12," Hill said. "It didn't take much to hold you down, did it?"
"No," the woman said, gasping between replies.
Authorities charged Harris with rape of a child, a Class A felony, in the incident, court records show.
Ultimately, Harris pleaded guilty to sexual battery and received a two-year sentence. Prosecutor Leslie Longshore said state attorneys at the time couldn't get Harris' wife to cooperate or bring her daughter to court to testify. In a letter to prosecutors and the Times Free Press, Harris' family members said his wife had coached her daughter to lie.
Hill, however, said he had a statement that Harris gave to police, "which is not very different from [the stepdaughter]," and entered it into evidence Thursday for Steelman's consideration.
He then called Harris' wife, Linda Harris, who said her husband often beat her throughout the course of their 27-year marriage. According to court records, Harris was twice charged with assault in 1997 and 2004, but prosecutors dismissed both cases, partly because Linda Harris wouldn't cooperate, Longshore said.
Prosecutors have argued mentioning Harris' child rape case would be highly inflammatory to a jury. Steelman must now weigh how helpful the information is to the defense versus how harmful it could be to the prosecution. If Steelman rules against them, the members of Robinson's defense team can't mention the past behavior at all. Still, the defense says evidence of Harris' assaults is relevant to the 2015 night in question.
The stepdaughter said Linda Harris called her around 1 a.m. and said Timothy Harris had beaten her up after they went to a club together. The couple were living in separate homes but had gone out that night, according to court testimony.
The stepdaughter then called her sister, Kiana Varnell, who was driving with her boyfriend, Robinson, after a night out. They decided to head to Olive Street, where Timothy Harris lived, since it often fell on the daughters to fix these situations, according to court testimony.
But while there, Varnell testified for prosecutors during Robinson's preliminary hearing in January 2016, Timothy Harris got angry and claimed everyone was lying when she confronted him. Robinson got out of their car, which was parked in the driveway, and suggested he and Varnell leave. According to Varnell, Harris then hopped into his truck and rammed their vehicle's front driver's-side door.
As they tried to pile into the car and leave, Harris started beating up Robinson on the passenger side, Varnell testified. Prosecutors say Robinson then shot Harris eight times in the chest, arms and shoulder, and the couple drove off.
"It's so saddening that no help was even offered to my brother," said Ezra Harris. "They [Robinson and Varnell] went to his house. And if [Harris' wife] was having a domestic issue with him, she should have called the police."
Steelman said he would take everything under advisement and told everyone to return to court on Jan. 19 at 1:30 p.m. Robinson faces second-degree murder charges.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.