GALLATIN, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee man who had been facing a death penalty trial in the killings of eight people in rural Westmoreland in April 2019, including his parents, uncle and a 12-year-old girl, pleaded guilty Wednesday to eight counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.
The surprise plea came after Sumner County prosecutors were given brain scans of Michael Cummins that showed “significant problems,” Sumner County District Attorney General Ray Whitley told reporters after the hearing.
Defense attorneys could have used the scans to try to convince a jury not to sentence Cummins to death, Whitley said. While he thinks prosecutors ultimately could have prevailed in securing the death penalty, he said it was a “close case.”
Judge David Gay and attorneys for both sides had travelled to Knoxville earlier this year to pick a jury pool ahead of an April trial date when the new evidence was revealed, forcing a delay, Gay said in court Wednesday. Gay had ruled after a January hearing that Cummins did not have an intellectual disability. It is illegal in Tennessee to execute someone with an intellectual disability.
Families of the victims agreed to the plea agreement, which brings finality and serves justice, Whitley said.
At the time of the 2019 killings, Cummins was close to being arrested for probation violations. He was on probation after serving 16 months of a 10-year sentence on a conviction for attempting in September 2017 to burn down a neighbor’s house and assaulting her when she tried to put out the fire.
On Wednesday, Whitley presented the state’s evidence, saying the proof at trial would have shown Cummins first killed James Fox Dunn Jr. on April 17, 2019, whose home was burned and rifle was stolen. Several days later on April 24, Cummins killed 69-year-old Shirley Fehrle, a retired nurse who had been sitting at home reading a book and watching a movie. Prosecutors believe Cummins did not know Fehrle and killed her in order to steal her car, a black Kia that Cummins’ was later seen driving and officers found stuck in a stream.
The following day, Cummins killed six people inside a trailer home, including his parents and uncle. His grandmother was wounded but survived. All eight victims died from blunt force and sharp force trauma to the head and face, Whitley said. When Cummins was captured walking out of the woods, he was carrying a hatchet with a blade on one side and a flat surface on the other, he said.
Killed in the trailer home were Cummins’ parents, 51-year-old David Cummins and 44-year-old Clara Cummins, and his 45-year-old uncle Charles Hosale. Also killed were Hosale’s girlfriend, 43-year-old Rachel McGlothlin-Pee and her mother 64-year-old Marsha Nuckols. The youngest victim was McGlothlin-Pee’s daughter, 12-year-old Sapphire McGlothlin-Pee.
Cummins’ grandmother, Mary Sue Hosale, was 67 at the time of the attack and survived. She later died of other causes, Whitley said.
Whitley said the evidence shows Sapphire was killed much later in the day than the others. School bus video and witness statements show Cummins ran to the trailer to intercept her as she returned from school. All of the other victims except for Sapphire’s mother appear to have been killed while they were sleeping earlier that morning, he said.
“They were caught off guard, and the brutality of the attack did not allow them a chance to fight back,” Whitely told the judge. He added “There was some evidence that Rachel tried to fight back, some evidence of a struggle.”
Sapphire’s father, Anthony West, was in the courtroom Wednesday but asked Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Nichols to make a brief statement for him.
“He just wanted me to say how much he misses her, how much he loved her, and what a loss this is that you can never recover from,” Nichols said.
James Dunn’s nephew Connor Dunn and brother Brad Dunn also spoke.
Connor Dunn said he and his father acted as de facto caretakers for his uncle, who lived alone and off-the-grid in the woods. They would make regular visits to make sure he had everything he needed. Connor Dunn remembers his uncle as someone who cared for all living things and was an amazing tennis player. In a perfect world, he would have been a park ranger, Connor Dunn said.
“He was not your typical brother, or neighbor or citizen,” Brad Dunn said, describing his older brother as intelligent, articulate and well-read. When Brad Dunn was younger, his older brother once jumped into a hotel swimming pool fully clothed to save him from drowning.
“He was a peaceful person who loved the outdoors and loved solitude,” Brad Dunn said. “It all ended with a brutal and senseless murder.”
Steve McGlothlin, brother of Rachel McGlothlin-Pee and son of Marsha Nuckols, began choking up as soon as he started talking.
“Your mother is the one that is sort of like the glue — she holds the family together,” he said. “I regret that I didn’t spend more time with her. My sister as well.”
“I’m at a loss for words,” McGlothlin said. “I’d like to know why, but obviously we’ll never find that out.”