By Reggie Ellis
In a bazaar turn of events, family witnesses did a 180 on their previous testimony regarding an Exeter man accused of killing his father over a $10 VCR last July.
At a Jan. 28 preliminary hearing for Edward Cummings, 36, of Exeter, both his son and mother testified that they lied to Exeter Police officers during their investigation about Edward's involvement in the death of his own father, 62-year-old Carl Cummings, on July 28, 2003. Cummings is charged with murdering his father, breaking and entering and being under the influence of a controlled substance. He pleaded not guilty to all charges at an arraignment on Aug. 1.
As he entered the courtroom in shackles, Edward -- now with a full grown mustache and goatee after six months in custody -- only gave his son and mother a quick glance as he shuffled to his seat next to public defender Justin Tuttle.
Raymond Cummings, Edward's son, and Shirley Cummings, the defendant's mother, had previously told police that "Eddie" and his wife Jenny came to Carl and Shirley's house, located in the 400 block of North Orange Avenue in Exeter, in order to sell a $10 VCR. Shirley and Jenny left to sell the VCR but the person was not home. When they returned an argument began when Jenny and Shirley began arguing about custody of Raymond. Raymond, who had been living with his grandparents after being taken from his father's home by Child Protective Services, started yelling at his mother. His father then yelled at him and in turn Carl began yelling at Edward. Raymond left the living room to watch TV in his bedroom with Thomas Booth and Cameron Barnett, two brothers Carl and Shirley had met at church who the couple were letting live with them temporarily.
The adults continued to argue until Carl repeatedly told Edward and Jenny to leave, partly because he suspected they had been doing drugs. Edward yelled several threats at his father as he and Jenny walked out the door. As Carl was closing the door, Edward kicked his father in the chest and hit him in the face. The assault triggered a fatal heart attack for Carl, who was paralyzed on much of his left side and had a weak heart from a heart attack in 1989 and three strokes since then. Raymond called 911 and police and fire responded simultaneously.
These statements were made by both when police arrived at the scene and during interviews at the Exeter Police Station the day after the altercation on July 29, 2003.
But when they took the witness stand on Jan. 28, it was a completely different story. The confusing contradiction in testimony stretched the preliminary hearing past the six-hour mark, ending just before the 4:30 p.m. court closing time.
Mumbling through answers, the shy 15-year-old Raymond often looked at the floor when responding to questions from Deputy District Attorney Sara Bratsch. He responded many times that he could not remember exactly what happened.
Raymond said he was embarrassed that his grandparents were selling a VCR to one of his friends for $10. He said he had gone to his room after his mother and grandmother had left to try to sell the VCR. When they returned an argument "about something" ensued between his mother, Jenny, and grandmother. He said there was tension between his mother and grandmother because Jenny blamed Edward's parents for taking their child away. Raymond had been living with his grandparents since 1999. Raymond said on many occasions, including the day in question, his grandparents had threatened to call CPS to get a restraining order against Edward and Jenny. He said Edward rarely argued with Carl.
"Me and grandpa argued a lot more than he and dad did. Mostly about stupid stuff."
Raymond said he came out of his room and yelled at his mother, but could not remember why. Edward then yelled at Raymond and Carl yelled at Edward. Raymond left the room and called 911 "because there was an argument." Judge Ronn Couilllard asked if anyone responded. Raymond said the line was busy.
However, Bratsch read a transcript of the 911 call in which Raymond said there was a fight.
"You know that 911 is for emergencies, right,"
Raymond said he didn't see a fight and didn't remember saying that. In cross examination, public defender Justin Tuttle suggested that Raymond had made up the fight to get a "quicker response" from 911. Raymond mumbled a "Yeah."
Bratsch said during a second 911 phone call Raymond claimed his grandfather was attacked by his father and that he had a heart attack and was dying. Raymond said his father never hit, kicked or pushed his grandfather after both attorneys repeatedly reminded him that he was under oath.
"I lied about seeing my dad kick grandpa in the chest," he told the prosecution.
Raymond claimed what really happened is that his grandfather was very angry and sat down and then got up to get some root beer. He said his grandfather's legs "wobbled" and he fell hitting his right side pretty hard on the armchair of the sofa.
Tuttle suggested that Raymond had lied just to blame someone because he was angry.
"You might say you were overcome with anger and grief and didn't think you were under oath when you gave your first statement," he said. "But now you understand you are under oath and want to come clean."
"The statement you gave to the police department was not accurate," Tuttle said. "Why would you tell the police [Edward] hit Carl?"
"I was angry," Shirley said, her trembling voice barely registering in the microphone of the witness stand.
"Why take it out on Eddie?" Tuttle asked.
"I don't know," she replied.
"But then you called me at my office to set the record straight, to make sure the true facts came out. That's what Carl would have wanted?"
Shirley and Carl were married for 39 years. It was obvious the pain of losing her husband would only have been amplified by losing her son to a life-long prison sentence. Shirley rambled on about unimportant details for most of her lengthy testimony after the judge repeatedly asked her to get to the point and to speak up.
"Yes, my mind was confused," Shirley said.
Shirley went on to testify that Jenny and Carl began arguing about the VCR. Carl then asked Edward and Jenny to leave three times.
"Eddie hollered, 'I'm leaving and I won't come back,'" Shirley said. "He then went to leave and all I saw was him sit down and his glasses fall off his head. I didn't see [Edward] hit anyone."
Bratsch reminded Shirley she was under oath and penalty of perjury. She then read Shirley's statement to police that said she saw Edward hit Carl, and that she wasn't sure if it was open or closed fisted.
"I don't remember," Shirley replied. "I was really upset and didn't care what happened. Carl was always mad because Edward was on that dope."
Shirley said Carl sat down and drank some root beer. About 30 minutes later Carl went into the kitchen to get another glass of root beer. He then wobbled and yelled for Shirley to help "keep his feet under him." Shirley said she couldn't hold him and he fell down. She said it was common for Carl to fall because of his weak heart. She said he had fallen 4-5 times before in the same month.
She said her husband refused to take his heart medication and one time was even clutching his chest, but refused an ambulance or a trip to the hospital. She said she and her son are easily confused.
"We are slow," Shirley told the prosecution.
She went on to say that Edward had been in special education for being "slow" since the sixth grade. When Bratsch asked what school he attended, Shirley said she couldn't remember the school or the city it was in because "he moved schools a lot."
Tuttle said he had discussed Edward's condition with a doctor at the Central Valley Regional Center and suggested he was developmentally delayed to the point he may not understand his miranda rights. She said Edward does odd jobs but couldn't seem to hold down a steady job.
Tuttle later made a motion that the charges be reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
The Exeter Police Department still viewed the situation as a simple act of violence in a rage of emotion. Sgt. Yarber was a 10-year veteran of the department said he arrived on the scene and walked through the open front door to find Carl lying in the middle of the living room of the Cummings' house on North Orange Avenue.
"He was unconscious, had a weak pulse and slow, shallow breathing," Yarber said.
Yarber said after a firefighter took over tending to Carl, he interviewed Shirley, Raymond and the two brothers Barnett and Booth, who witnessed the incident.Yarber said they all gave similar accounts. Yarber was enroute to Edward's house when he got a call that Edward was walking toward two officers already there.
"His demeanor was angry," Yarber said.
Sgt. Kevin Wright stayed at the scene when Yarber left. He said Edward was yelling obscenities when he saw him walking. Wright, who has two and half years with the department and 18 years of police experience, later conducted separate interviews with each witness at the police station. He said all were informed that the interviews were being video taped and recorded.
"They all said Carl was kneed in the chest and then hit in the face," Wright said. "[Shirley] demonstrated the kick on video during the interview. She never mentioned that he didn't take his medication or that he fell down often."
He said that Shirley did mention that Edward was resentful that CPS had taken Raymond out of his home. Wright said during Raymond's 911 call, Carl could be heard in the background telling Raymond to say that Edward had threatened his life.
Both officers testified that all four witnesses -- Shirley, Raymond, Booth and Barnett -- said that Edward kicked Carl in the chest then hit him in the ear before leaving the house while making threats. They also mentioned that witness accounts all included Carl getting up right after the encounter and "within minutes or seconds" his knees buckling and his body collapsing to the ground.
The case was further confused by Dr. Gary Walter.
Walter conducted an autopsy on Carl's body on July 29. He said Carl's body had "widespread superficial abrasions and bruises" and a half-inch cut on his right ear.
"These could be consistent with falling often, but all of them were fairly recent," he said. "The abrasions were relatively fresh, within 24-48 hours of the time of death."
However, he said there was no clear-cut evidence of a physical altercation.
"There was no trauma to the chest or back that would have been life threatening," Walter said.
He said Carl did have an enlarged heart and that there was 90 percent blockage of one artery, but there were no signs of damage from a previous heart attack. Tuttle asked if emotion alone could trigger a heart attack. Walter said emotional and or physical stress could have easily caused the heart attack.
"I guess you could say he was a heart attack waiting to happen," Walter said.
Both attorneys and the judge left the courtroom with more questions than answers. The judge asked that medical records be reviewed by all parties and set a another hearing for 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 6 in Dept. 12 of the Tulare County Courthouse.