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Rodney Jennings listens during jury selection as his murder trial begins in the courtroom of Judge Tom Greenholtz on Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Rodney Jennings
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The murder trial of a 29-year-old man accused of fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend's cousin during a confrontation got underway Tuesday, more than two years after the incident.

Dressed in a crisp, grey dress shirt, Rodney Jennings sat quietly beside his defense attorneys as they prepared their opening statements about the night of Jan. 28, 2014, when authorities say he went unannounced to see his children at 2755 6th Ave. around 6 p.m.

"Rodney didn't have any way to get in touch with the mother of his children," attorney Brian Pearce argued. "She didn't have a phone, so he would call her grandmother to go see the kids. He'd done this several times in January 2014."

And when he got to the apartment, Chelsea Thompson, the mother of his children, answered the door and told Jennings it wasn't a good time. But instead of leaving, Jennings talked to her about the last time he visited the children, saying he felt they were mistreated.

Thompson felt confronted, Pearce said. So she grabbed her cousin, Raphael White, who told Jennings, "I don't want any problems."

What happened next is contested.

Prosecutors Cameron Williams and Kristen Spires argued Jennings said he didn't want any problems either.

"And then, as he went out the door, [Jennings] turned around and fired," Spires said.

Then, they said, Jennings sprinted away into the snowy night as White died from a gunshot wound to the chest. Authorities eventually found Jennings in Memphis on March 18 and charged him with second-degree murder, assault, and possession of a weapon with felony convictions.

"At the end of the state's case, the state's going to ask that you find Rodney Jennings guilty of second-degree murder," Spires said to the jury.

Pearce and attorney Brandy Spurgin said Jennings encountered a hostile situation in which he felt threatened and outnumbered. White was 10 inches taller and 90 pounds heavier than Jennings. Plus, the two had run-ins in the past, Pearce said.

Jennings didn't attack, they argued, he used the amount of force necessary to escape the situation.

"What happened when Raphael White entered that kitchen?" Pearce asked. "What did he say? What did he do? What was the tone? How did Jennings feel when he was confronted with three people who wanted him gone? Who wanted to do physical harm and wanted to throw him out of the house?"

After opening statements, Spires played video footage from Chattanooga police officers who initially responded to the scene. She then slid a series of pictures onto the overhead projector in Judge Tom Greenholtz's courtroom.

The picture showed a snowy street flanked by dim street lamps. Another showed a doorway, strung in yellow crime tape. And a third showed a green and white tiled floor, the main entrance to the home.

Inside was a broom propped against the wall, a bottle of laundry detergent near the sink, and a mound of shirts, bunched on the floor, soaking up a puddle of blood.

The trial contines today in Hamilton County Criminal Court at 9 a.m. with more testimony from eyewitnesses.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow @zackpeterson918.

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