With his September trial date fast approaching, attorneys had planned Monday to discuss a range of issues related to Cortez Sims, the 19-year-old man accused of the attempted murder of four people in 2015.
But when Monday's hearing was set to begin, Brandy Spurgin, his attorney, had to announce that Sims wanted her off the case. He had filed an official complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility — which oversees Tennessee lawyers — and claimed Spurgin's inexperience concerned him.
Police say Sims entered a College Hill Courts apartment on Jan. 7, 2015, and opened fire, killing 20-year-old Talitha Bowman, injuring two others, and paralyzing then 1-year-old Zoey Duncan. So, in recent months, Spurgin had filed several motions for her client, calling for a change of venue, a bond reduction and a suppression of key evidence that painted Sims as the shooter. The public interest that normally surrounds a major criminal case was only amplified when Bianca Horton, one of the victims who survived that night, was found dead in late May on the 2100 block of Elder Street.
Although he said he agreed with Spurgin, Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman moved the next court appearance to Aug. 22 to take Sims' request under advisement, and to give the 19-year-old time to think about whether he could obtain legal counsel that would be ready by Sept. 27.
More interesting, though, was the 30-minute discussion between the judge and the 19-year-old, which vacillated between concerns over a partial jury, the state's use of a body camera, prosecutorial bias, and his defense attorney's performance.
"Why did you notify the Board of Professional Responsibility?" Steelman asked. Although a spokeswoman for the board could not confirm or deny the complaint on Monday, Steelman announced in open court that he, Spurgin and prosecutor Lance Pope had discussed it in his chambers.
Sims told the judge he was having trouble getting Spurgin to file motions: "Yes, she did file some motions. But I was trying to get other motions. She said you were going to get mad because it was a waste of time."
Then he segued into discovery — the information that attorneys must exchange before a case goes to trial — and said the state hadn't provided him with everything.
"I know I'm innocent. I know I'm not the person who did this. He [Pope] says he provided everything. He has not provided everything," Sims said. For example, he mentioned an unknown DNA swab collected from the scene.
"How'd you get that?" Steelman asked.
"My lawyer," Sims said.
"So that's evidence of your lawyer at work," Steelman said.
Steelman then asked Pope to explain the DNA swab.
Pope said several droplets of blood were collected from the scene and sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. When the lab report came back, he said, there were several unknown signatures. Since that time, though, the Chattanooga Police Department had worked to take swabs from involved people and send them to TBI for more conclusive testing, he added.
"I expect that report to come back very soon," Pope said.
Sims then circled back on his concerns that Spurgin had not filed the appropriate motions. Steelman asked Spurgin which motions she had filed. She recited them: a motion to suppress a black hoodie, a motion to suppress Horton, a motion regarding gang reference. But she had not moved to suppress Marcell Christopher, one of the victims injured in the 2015 shooting, which bothered Sims. She had not done it, she said, because there would be no factual basis.
Prosecutor Pope explained further: When officers from the Chattanooga Housing Authority arrived, Christopher was lying on his back upstairs, injured by gunfire, thinking he was about to die. One of the officers who approached him was wearing a body camera.
"He focused the camera on Mr. Christopher," Pope said of the officer. "And, while (Christopher) is lying there on the floor, he looks at the body camera and says, 'Cortez.'
"So I suspect that's the identification Mr. Sims wants to suppress."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.