Bianca Horton's slaying complicates Cortez Sims' murder trial

Cortez Sims

Sebrina Robinson collapsed to the floor two weeks ago when she heard the 26-year-old mother had supposedly been killed in retaliation for testifying. Not Bianca Horton, she thought. Not another one of her girls.

Her mind raced: Who would care for Horton's four children, especially Zoey? The 2-year-old had survived Jan. 7, 2015, when Cortez Sims, 18, allegedly burst into a College Hill Courts apartment and opened fire on four people - but the attack left her paralyzed.

Would Horton find Robinson's 20-year-old daughter, Talitha Bowman, in heaven? During the attack, authorities said, a bullet connected with Bowman's collarbone, causing it to explode, hitting her heart.

But, perhaps most importantly, she wondered whether the state would still have a strong case against Sims, then a 17-year-old gang member who was arrested in Knoxville and charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and employing a firearm during commission of a felony. Although officials have never commented publicly on Horton's role in Sims' case, authorities were concerned about retaliation when she was found dead in late May in the 2100 block of Elder Street.

On Thursday, standing outside Sims' most recent hearing in Hamilton County Criminal Court, Robinson announced Horton's death would not be in vain.

"I think it's going to strengthen the case even more," Robinson said of her passing. "Because Bianca was one of my key witnesses and she was coming to testify - for justice. People that's dead can't talk. But we got her recording. And that's stronger than ever."

Unlike most people, Robinson said, Horton came forward and testified against Sims during a 2015 transfer hearing in Juvenile Court.

At the end of that hearing, Judge Rob Philyaw sent Sims to Criminal Court to be tried as an adult. The next Criminal Court hearing, set for July 21, will concern a number of motions his attorney, Brandy Spurgin, has filed while attorneys work to meet a Sept. 27 trial date.

Prosecutors declined to comment Thursday about Horton's death and any possible effect on the case. Records show the 26-year-old mother was included on the state's witness list.

But Juvenile Court Administrator Sam Mairs said Horton's testimony was recorded and preserved.

And Chattanooga police Sgt. Josh May, who coordinates the department's anti-gang violence efforts, said her testimony came up during a biweekly meeting between prosecutors and officers about cases.

"She testified in the transfer hearing," May said, "as did Marcell Christopher. He's a gang member, and we were worried about him, too. But they both testified and were cross examined. I believe, as far as the DA's office goes, they'd be able to introduce that."

Christopher, Horton, Bowman, and Zoey Duncan were all struck by gunfire that January night. Bowman died in the apartment while the others recovered.

With testimony, an unavailable witness raises obvious concerns about hearsay. But Rule 804 of the Tennessee code says former testimony is not excluded if the defense had "both an opportunity and a similar motive to develop the testimony by direct, cross or redirect examination."

Spurgin declined to comment Thursday but said she planned to file motions in Criminal Court. Those motions were unavailable Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, after Sims appeared in an orange jumpsuit with a short haircut, Robinson rested on a bench outside Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom. Because she constantly appeared on TV, in court, or throughout the newspaper, Robinson said she'd been threatened, too.

"It makes me strive even more," Robinson said. "It makes me want justice even more than ever."

One of her daughters, Jerriann Robinson, 18, made a request: "I want to say prayers to Cortez's family, my family and Bianca's family because through Christ anything is possible. No matter what the DA or what the judge say, through Christ it's possible."

They all took a moment to reflect, the six of them, on their final memories of Horton.

For Robinson, it was the wake. Four or five days after Horton's death, she went to John P. Franklin Funeral Home around 12:30 p.m. It was the same place they held her daughter's wake, so the memories hit hard.

She walked up to Horton, face to face.

"I told Bianca, I love her and I'm going to miss her," Robinson said. "And I took a purple and pink rose and set it on the side of her and let her know: I was there."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at 423-757-6347 or Follow @zackpeterson918.