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Cortez Sims, the 17-year-old suspect in a 2015 deadly apartment shooting at College Hill Courts, appears before Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert D. Philyaw for a detention hearing on Jan. 12, 2015.
some text Cortez Sims

Three hours after a man in a hoodie killed her friend and paralyzed her daughter, Bianca Horton was handed six photographs by a police officer.

She looked at the first one — a young black man — and flipped past it.

On the second photo, she stopped. This was the shooter, she told police. She signed her initials behind the photo at 4:06 a.m. on Jan. 7, 2015.

Prosecutors and police replayed that tape-recorded interaction with Horton, one of four victims in a fatal College Hill Courts shooting, during an evidentiary hearing for her accused killer Wednesday in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

As prosecutor Lance Pope slid a photo onto the courtroom projector, he turned to the officer on the witness stand. "Who is that?" he asked.

Chattanooga Police detective Christopher Blackwell leaned into the microphone. "I come to find out that's Cortez Sims," he said.

Sims, 19, faces one count of first-degree murder, two counts of using a firearm during a dangerous felony and three counts of attempted first-degree murder in connection with the shooting. Police say he burst into the College Hill Courts apartment around 1 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2015, and opened fire during a gang-related feud. The bullets killed 20-year-old Talitha Bowman, injured Horton and Marcell Christopher, and paralyzed Zoey Duncan, Horton's daughter, who was 1 year old at the time.

Horton was later found dead in May 2016 on Elder Street, prompting speculation she was killed for cooperating with police and prosecutors.

"This is a case that has everything a front page needs," defense attorney Lee Ortwein said Wednesday of the media coverage surrounding the case.

That's a big reason why Ortwein and his co-counsel, Clancy Covert, asked Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman to bring in jurors from a different county. With so much publicity, Ortwein said, Hamilton County citizens will have already formed opinions on the case, rendering them unable to provide his client a fair trial, scheduled to begin April 4.

"What could there be that a juror read?" Steelman asked.

"That Bianca Horton is dead," Ortwein replied. Since he took over the case in September, Ortwein has emphasized that Sims and Horton are consistently linked, even though authorities have presented no proof to connect her death to his case.

While prosecutors have not explicitly presented that link yet, Pope has urged the court to remember the immense pressure on each witness.

"We are dealing with a case where one of the witnesses has already been murdered," he said in August. "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."

In addition to picking him out of the photo lineup, Horton identified Sims during his transfer hearing in March 2015 to determine whether he should be tried as an adult. On scene that night, Horton could not specifically say who did it, Pope said.

Ortwein used that fact to challenge her reliability, arguing that several officers were repeating the name "Cortez Sims" on scene. That influenced Horton to pick him out in a photo lineup later, he said, and then to point to Sims once more at his March hearing.

"Did you ever interrogate Sims in the past?" Ortwein asked Blackwell.

"I can't recall," the detective said.

"You do or you don't?" Ortwein said.

"I still don't know him," Blackwell said.

After Ortwein sat down, Pope stood back up and asked Blackwell if he ever mentioned the name "Cortez Sims" to Horton during the photo lineup. No, Blackwell said. "I asked her to ID who shot her."

Horton wasn't the only one who identified Sims as the shooter. Lying on the floor, dying from a gunshot wound to the chest, Christopher told a responding officer that Sims shot him. The officer's body camera captured it all.

On Wednesday, Pope said the footage should "absolutely come in" for jurors while Ortwein protested that it was based on hearsay and harmful to his client. Steelman watched the footage in private, saying he would keep it under seal until he was sure it would be admissible in trial.

Once Blackwell finished testifying, Steelman said he would recess the rest of the hearing until today at 10 a.m. Steelman has not decided on a rule motion yet, specifically regarding the issue of allowing an out-of-town jury.

"Before I rule [on that]," he said, "I think I need to resolve the motion about whether Horton's death is something the jury should hear about."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

Correction: A previous headline for this story misidentified the type of recording played at the trial as a video recording. In fact, it was an audio recording.

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