State to seek death penalty for 3 accused of killing woman for testifying in daughter's shooting [photos, documents]

State to seek death penalty for 3 accused of killing woman for testifying in daughter's shooting [photos, documents]

August 15th, 2018 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Two-year-old Zoey Duncan hugs her mother Bianca Horton while at their apartment on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Updated at 6:31 p.m. on Wednesday, August 15, 2018.

Gallery: Three accused in 2016 murder of Bianca Horton may face death penalty

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The three men accused in the 2016 murder of 26-year-old Bianca Horton may face the death penalty if convicted.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston filed a notice of intent Wednesday to seek the death penalty against Andre Grier, 31; Charles Shelton, 28; and Courtney High, 27.

The men are accused of killing Horton to prevent her from testifying against fellow gang member Cortez Sims, who was accused of shooting Horton's daughter and killing another woman, 20-year-old Talitha Bowman.

Sims was convicted of Bowman's murder last year.

If the men are convicted, a separate sentencing hearing will be held during which the state will ask for the death penalty. But for a death sentence to stick, prosecutors have to prove the murder was committed under certain circumstances, according to state law.

In the notice filed Tuesday, the state lists three circumstances on which it will rely:

» The murder involved serious physical abuse beyond what is necessary to cause death.

» The murder was committed for the purpose of interfering with a lawful arrest or prosecution of the defendant.

» The murder was knowingly committed, solicited, directed or aided by the defendant.

Attorneys for the men either did not return a request for comment or declined to do so.

A spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office declined to comment.

All three men remain in the Hamilton County Jail on bonds that range from $1.2 million to $1.4 million.

The series of homicides began in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2015, when police say Sims burst into a College Hill Courts apartment and opened fire, fatally wounding Bowman and wounding two others, one of whom was Horton's 1-year-old daughter, Zoey Duncan.

Chattanooga Police officer Brandon Herring grabbed Zoey, wrapped in a blood-soaked towel, and jumped in the back seat of Officer Clayton Holmes' car and sped to the hospital without waiting for an ambulance. She underwent emergency surgery but remains paralyzed from the waist down.

A little over a year later, Horton was found dead on the side of the road in the 2100 block of Elder Street on May 25, 2016. She had been shot six times, and multiple bullet casings lined the ground around her.

The murder charges against Grier, Shelton and High were first handed down during a grand jury's indictment of 54 Athens Park Bloods gang members in March under the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.

Of the 54, seven — including Grier, Shelton and High — were charged with murder. High received two additional murder charges connected to the separate shooting deaths in 2016 of Marquise Jackson and Jerica Jackson (the two are not related).

Now that the death penalty will be sought, the men will have to secure or be appointed lawyers qualified to take on capital murder cases.

Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts states courts must appoint two attorneys to represent defendants in capital cases, and it spells out a list of the minimum qualifications for such attorneys.

Some of those include having regularly participated in criminal jury trials for at least five years and completed at least six hours every two years of training in defending those charged with a capital offense.

In Tennessee, there are only 56 lawyers qualified to take on death penalty cases, as self-reported to the administrative office. Of those, only 31 are public defenders. Only one practices here in Chattanooga.

It's not clear if the attorneys appointed to defend Grier, Shelton and High are all qualified in capital cases.

The last person sentenced to death in Hamilton County was Marlon Kiser in 2003. He was convicted of murdering Hamilton County sheriff's deputy Donald Bond.

Prosecutors said Kiser ambushed Bond early on the morning of Sept. 6, 2001, spraying bullets from a high-powered rifle when the deputy interrupted Kiser's attempt to set fire to a fruit stand on East Brainerd Road. A jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to death.

Since then, prosecutors have filed to seek the death penalty in other cases, but those defendants took guilty pleas to avoid the sentence. The most recent of those was Jessee Matthews in 2012, also convicted of killing a law enforcement officer, Chattanooga Police Department Sgt. Tim Chapin in 2011.

Matthews was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 25 years.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

Document: State v Andre Grier

The State v Andre Grier

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Document: State v Charles Shelton

The State v Charles Shelton

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Document: State v Courtney High

The State v Courtney High

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Correction: This article was updated to remove a reference to a gag order in the case. No gag order has been placed on the case as of Aug. 16.