"We are dealing with a case where one of the witnesses has already been murdered," prosecutor Lance Pope said Monday in Hamilton County Criminal Court. "Not died. Not passed away from natural causes. Ms. Bianca Horton was murdered. She was one of the two witnesses who identified the defendant as the perpetrator."
Since Horton, 26, was found dead on the 2100 block of Elder Street in late May, authorities have speculated she was killed for cooperating with police and prosecutors. On Jan. 7, 2015, when Cortez Sims, then 17, allegedly burst into a College Hill Courts apartment and opened fire, Horton was one of three people injured, including her 1-year-old child. The fourth victim, 20-year-old Talitha Bowman, was killed.
Attorneys had gathered Monday to discuss the latest defense motion: A last-minute filing Friday afternoon asking for permission to appeal Judge Barry Steelman's order keeping Sims and his attorney together for the Sept. 27 trial.
Steelman made that ruling earlier this month after Sims said he wanted to fire Brandy Spurgin-Floyd, his attorney of roughly one year, because of her inexperience. But on Aug. 22, when he refused to write down one specific issue with her representation, Steelman denied his request.
After listening to arguments Monday, Steelman said he wanted more time to think about the motion, which includes an affidavit from Spurgin-Floyd detailing why she also wants to get off the case.
"Thursday is the next appearance," Steelman said to her. "I'll read your brief and see what I can come up with then."
So far, Spurgin-Floyd's argument has been consistent: She is the first attorney, this is the first trial date, and this schism has injured their client-attorney so deeply Sims should hire a different attorney he trusts more for such a serious charge.
Steelman, on the other hand, has maintained that Sims never had a problem with Spurgin-Floyd's representation until his Sept. 27 trial date — which he requested — crept into view.
Aside from saying a trial delay would "prejudice" the state's case, the prosecution has remained largely silent — until Monday.
In addition to Horton, the state is concerned about a second witness, Pope said.
"He's in the community, and subject to the pressures of the community," Pope said. "And the sooner the issue can be brought to trial and resolved, that will address that witness' involvement in our case."
Though he did not explicitly name the witness, Pope was referring to Marcell Christopher, a victim of the 2015 shooting who identified Sims on a body camera recording. Like Sims, Christopher is gang affiliated, which enhances the pressures of testifying, police have said. It's unclear whether his confession — captured at College Hill Courts after being shot — will make it into trial since Christopher changed his story later at the hospital.
However strained communications are between her and Sims though, Spurgin-Floyd immediately countered that no evidence showed a link between Horton's death and retaliation.
Still, whether Cortez was involved or not, Pope said, Horton's death hurt the state because it's another witness gone. And that possibility only increases "the longer the case takes."
In addition to Chattanooga witnesses, Pope said, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent is scheduled to take maternity leave in late December and won't be able to return until April or so.
If Sims hired someone else, that new attorney probably wouldn't be ready by Sept. 27, the current trial date, which Steelman has pointed out in previous hearings. Hence, Pope said, his concerns about delaying the trial date.
"Judge," he said, "we're not talking about passing the case for 60 days. We're talking about passing the case for five to six months."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.