While prosecutors have argued that a delay in the trial of a 19-year-old accused killer could put more witnesses at risk, a Hamilton County judge granted Cortez Sims a new attorney on Monday — pushing back his trial date.
The debate over whether Sims should receive a new attorney had dragged out in court for weeks, with prosecutors recently admitting they were worried their only remaining key witness in the case would back out of testifying because of community pressure.
But Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman ruled on Monday afternoon that because of the concerns Sims' attorney raised and because of Sims' age and immaturity, the court would appoint him a new attorney.
Sims, a validated gang member, has been charged in a January 2015 shooting rampage in College Hill Courts that ended with a 20-year-old woman dead, a 1-year-old baby girl paralyzed and her mother and an 18-year-old man injured.
This May, Sims' case became more volatile when the state's key witness and mother of the paralyzed toddler, Bianca Horton, was found shot to death. While no one has been arrested for killing Horton, authorities have speculated she was killed for cooperating with police and prosecutors.
In July, about 60 days before Sims was scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 27, he first tried to fire his attorney, Brandy Spurgin-Floyd.
Sims filed a motion with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility complaining Spurgin-Floyd was inexperienced and was jeopardizing his case. Steelman seemed skeptical of the complaint, pointing out that Sims hadn't raised any concern with his attorney for a year and, when he asked for an example in court, Sims couldn't provide one. Steelman denied the request.
But once Sims filed his complaint, Spurgin-Floyd requested she be taken off the case. During a hearing in August, she admitted Sims was uncooperative and their communication was "spiraling downhill."
On Monday afternoon, Steelman said he was reluctant to grant the motion for a new attorney because he wanted to guard against such behavior in the future. Another murder defendant in Hamilton County, Christopher Padgett, used a similar tactic and is on his fifth attorney, which has drawn out his trial for years, records show.
Steelman explained he wasn't granting the request because of Sims' complaint but because of Spurgin-Floyd's concerns with communicating with the murder defendant. Steelman also said he blamed Sims for the breakdown in communication.
In her place, Steelman appointed Lee Ortwein, who Sims had requested, to be his attorney. On Sept. 27, when Sims' trial should have begun, the judge will hold a hearing to set a new trial date.
After the judge ended the hearing, prosecutor Lance Pope declined to comment on his concerns about their witness since the trial now will be delayed.
Staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.