There was never much mystery Friday about the outcome of Michael Cummings’s motion for the court to revisit his life sentence for the murder of his wife, Faith Cummings, at the couple’s Point Pleasant home in Palm Coast in 2018. Circuit Judge Terence Perkins denied the motion.
He’d addressed the court at his sentencing in 2019, but only to accuse Faith of cheating on him and project as much remorse as he could muster. He was hoping to sway the judge to sentence him to 30 years rather than life. Perkins wasn’t convinced.
“It is as brutal and as senseless an act as one could imagine,” the judge said at the time. “This wasn’t an immediate knee-jerk reaction to some anger. This was a prolonged, violent act.” But Perkins also told him what he tells every defendant he’s just sentenced; Cummings could appeal. So he did.
Friday’s lengthy hearing was the first time that Cummings, now 50, spoke openly about the details of that night, at least as he remembered them. He again put much of the blame for that night on Faith, blamed his defense attorneys, and disputed his designation as a murderer.
Back in from prison in Santa Rosa County, he claimed his attorneys were ineffective for failing to hire experts to evaluate his sanity. He doesn’t think he acted as a sane person that night. His attorneys, he claims, also failed him by not presenting a potential defense of battered spouse syndrome, nor did they hire someone to refute the medical examiner’s findings that the victim was strangled to death.
In sum, Cummings on Friday argued that, while he may have killed his wife, he had not murdered her, he had not beaten or stomped on her, and he had not strangled her. Astoundingly, he said her death was the result of their mutual actions against each other: just as he had blamed his rage the night of the killing on her, for allegedly cheating on him, he was now assigning something like half the blame for Faith’s death on Faith.
“You did not believe that she was strangled to death?” Assistant State Attorney Mark Johnson, who had prosecuted the case in 2018 and 2019, asked Cummings Friday.
“No, I know she wasn’t,” Cummings said.
“At what point did you admit that you actually killed the victim in this case?” Johnson asked him.
“I never said that I killed her. I never once said that I killed her. I said that I was responsible, when I pushed her I caused her to–I used non-lethal force,” Cummings said. “I never murdered her. By all definitions of murder, she was not murdered.” He then interpreted battered spouse syndrome as “me standing my ground,” or self-defense.
“‘I killed her, but I did it in self-defense,'” the prosecutor said, interpreting Cummings’s words.
“No, I did not kill her,” Cummings objected. “That’s the whole thing, is, I did not murder my wife.”
“Okay, but I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m saying,” Johnson told him. “Whether you murdered her or intentionally or whatever, did you kill your wife?”
“Did I cause her to die? Her death was aggravated by her brain disease,” Cummings said. He was referring to Faith having Moyamoya syndrome, a form of vascular disease that triggers strokes, but that was not considered a contributing factor to her death that night.
“Did you do anything that helped cause your wife’s death?” Johnson tried again.
“I take some responsibility. I said that in the beginning, yes,” Cummings said. “Had I not pushed her away from me when she broke my nose. Had I not pushed her away after she broke my nose, she would still be alive today.” Again, Cummings was parceling out blame on his victim for what he did. Johnson asked him what specifically he did. “I shoved her away from me after she broke my nose. You can see my nose is still broken.”
“Is that the only thing you did?”
“I slapped her.”
“Did you do anything else?”
“I held her arms down while she tried to beat me in the face and head with her fists.”
“Did you do anything else?”
“No. Well,” Cummings continued, “I laid back on the floor after she kicked me in the face while I was throwing up in the toilet. Which I explained all this to them. I didn’t go to prison and change my story. I explained all this my attorneys. When I was throwing up in the toilet, because she put a Xanax in my drink, she read my Facebook. She ran in and she kicked me in the face, called me a bastard, called me a son of a bitch.”
“What I’m asking though, sir, is what did you do?” Johnson asked him.
“So I rolled over on my back,” Cummings said, at no point describing the brutality he was responsible for. “She picked up a ceramic bust and slammed it down and broke it on the side of my head. I rolled over on my back and I put my foot up and I shoved her out of the doorway. That’s where they say, oh well, you stomped on her. No, I didn’t stomp on her. I was pushing her away. I was laying on my back on the bathroom floor having thrown up in the toilet, when I shoved her away from me. She continued to pursue me. I jumped up and I pushed her away again. That’s how she got the bruise on the side of her neck. That was a strike. That was never an asphyxiation. I never choked her. I never wrapped my hand around her neck. She was–she was going nuts.”
“So she caused her own death,” Johnson said, incredulous.
“It was me and her both, we caused it together. I’m not looking for a Get Out of Jail Free card. I just know that I didn’t murder her.”
The testimony was in sharp variance from the evidence as presented by Dr. Deanna Oleske, the associate medical examiner for District 23 in St. Augustine, a district that includes Flagler. Oleske had testified at the sentencing, saying Faith had died of “blunt force injuries as well as evidence of manual strangulation.” Johnson had asked Oleske to describe innumerable pictures showing every angle of Faith’s body. The evidence was not the result of a push, a shove or of being held down, but of a continuous and violent attack. She had multiple contusions on both sides of her face, nasal bone fractures, a skull fracture, a bruised left eyelid, bruising over the right eye and forehead, many bruises on her neck, five bruises on her head, blood coming out of her ear. A syringe was somehow deeply entangled in her hair. Her brain had hemorrhaged, caused by “significant blunt force,” Oleske said. Her body below the neck was also severely bruised, scratched, cut. Nearly all of her ribs were fractured when she was still alive, and in ways not consistent with someone performing CPR. She even had substantial bruising on her private parts.
As to her neck, there were “multiple small fingerprint size contusions” along with “petechial hemorrhages” and broken thyroid bone structures that were all suggestive of manual strangulation. A dissection of the neck confirmed the doctor’s observations. “The cause of her death was blunt force trauma of the head with asphyxiation,” Oleske testified. “The manner of death was homicide.”
Johnson on Friday was asking questions he fully knew the answer to, including whether Cummings had consulted with a forensic pathologist who would dispute that Faith was strangled.
“I don’t have to. I know she wasn’t strangled. I don’t have to,” Cummings insisted. “Because when I pushed her up against the door, she chased me out of the room and broke a bucket full of syringes over my back.”
“Are you, sir, a medical examiner?” Johnson asked him.
“No, I’m not, but I was there,” he said. Cummings at that point got indisposed and needed a 10-minute break. The judge ordered a recess. It was an odd parallel to when Cummings was “there,” and the way he had previously described the killing: at his sentencing, he said “I was blacking out. It was just — I don’t — it was like a bad dream.” He told the court back then “it just wasn’t me.”
But Friday he was looking for yet others to blame. He claimed that he was coerced by his two attorneys not only to take a plea, but that he would get 30 years, even though the plea form he signed clearly stated that he could face up to life in prison. The plea was “open,” as opposed to an agreed plea where the prison sentence is more precise, which is to say that it was up to the judge to sentence him to anywhere from 30 years to life in prison.
Cummings at his sentencing, after giving a brief history of his years with Faith–meeting her in 1997, moving in in 1998, their good years together, the way things soured after his brother’s death in 2017–had apologized repeatedly, but never disputed the accounts of Faith’s death or the medical examiner’s findings. “I just feel responsible,” he said. Now, he was arguing that it was not all him, and that his sentence was unjust.
But Perkins, after hearing from Cummings’s two attorneys (Matt Philips and Josh Mosley) was not about to reverse his earlier ruling.
“Given the utter brutality of this particular murder, this is not simply push somebody down, they hit their head on something and they died as a result of that,” Johnson had said. “This went on for some time. And because of sheer brutality of this particular murder we believe that the only appropriate sentence in this particular case is life in prison.”
Cummings may still appeal to the Fifth District.