A Hamilton County, Tennessee judge Monday appointed lawyers for three men who face the death penalty for allegedly kidnapping and then killing a state's witness in 2016 as part of the state's gang racketeering case.
Andre Grier, Courtney High and Charles Shelton could be sentenced to death if they're convicted in the May 2016 slaying of Bianca Horton. Prosecutors say the three men kidnapped Horton from near her workplace, shuttled her into a van, killed her and then cleaned the evidence so the 26-year-old mother couldn't testify against Cortez Sims, who was then facing trial for a fatal 2015 shooting that also injured Horton and paralyzed her baby.
All three are being held on $1.5 million bonds, and the allegations against them are at the center of a criminal case against 55 men and women who prosecutors say participated in fraudulent and criminal matters for the Athens Park Bloods street gang.
Since prosecutors filed notices last month to seek the death penalty, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz said he wanted to ensure Grier, High and Shelton had competent counsel. Hamilton County prosecutors last sought the death penalty against Marlon Kiser, who was convicted in 2003 of killing Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy Donald Bond in 2001.
In this case, Grier received Knoxville attorney Thomas Slaughter and a second associate; High received Chattanooga attorney Steve Moore in addition to his current counsel, Fisher Wise; and Charles Shelton received Chattanooga defense attorney Dan Ripper. Defendants facing the death penalty must be represented by two lawyers, and Greenholtz said he's searching for another appointment for Shelton.
Monday was the first time the majority of the defendants appeared, either in person or by video conference from custody, since prosecutors dismissed their first presentment and issued new charges against the alleged gang members. As a result, the defendants had to be arraigned once more, and those who showed up pleaded not guilty through their attorneys.
In their first March presentment, prosecutors charged the Athens Park Bloods gang with dealing illegal drugs, committing robberies and arson, lying to authorities about their crimes, using the proceeds of illegal activities to bail other members out of jail and pay legal fees and coordinating plans over partially untraced three-way phone calls with incarcerated members. They charged 54 people with at least participating in the conspiracy. Others, including Grier, High and Shelton, faced additional murder charges for previously unsolved homicides.
The first presentment, however, did not outline what prior crimes the majority of defendants committed in furtherance of the gang. After defense attorneys pushed the state for more information and evidence, prosecutors issued a new presentment last month with details on each defendant's prior crimes. According to court filings, some defense attorneys believe their clients should be dismissed from this indictment, too.
For example, in a motion filed Aug. 30, attorney Philip Wells said prosecutors are violating constitutional rights by relying on arrests that happened before legislators changed the RICO law in 2012 to prosecute gang members. Furthermore, Wells said, prosecutors don't have two prior arrests within two years of each other against his client, Rodney Lomnick Jr., as the RICO law calls on them to have.
Prosecutors haven't filed a response yet, but the next scheduled court date is Nov. 24.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.