Cheating the Hangman
Part 4 of 4
John Cooper knew that if his client had any chance of being found innocent, he had to put him on the stand to make a statement without any cross examination by the State. Cummings gently walked to the stand to make an unsworn statement to the jury. "Gentlemen of the jury, I am up here before you," Cummings began. "I have always been raised right here in Laurens County and I have never given anybody any trouble in my life," he stated. Cummings told the jurors that the trouble began when Mr. Cannon ran into the rear of Buster Wells' car, though he knew not why. He heard the women in the car screaming and hollering and ran out to see what the commotion was about. "I said what's the matter Buster?" He said, 'This man here run into my car and wants me to pay for it." Cummings further stated that Buster asked him for his opinion on what was the best thing to do about it.
After examining the damages, Cummings remarked that he recommended that Cannon and Wells pay for their own damages. While he was squatting down, Cummings said that Cannon screamed, "You haven't got a God d--ned thing to do with it and if you say another word, I'll kill you!" as he ran his hand into his hip pocket. Cummings said, "I told Buster this is the best idea I can give you about it," to which, he said, Cannon screamed, "Didn't I tell you not to say any more about it you G-d d mned black s.o.b.! I'll blow your brains out!" Cummings contended that Cannon pulled his gun and ran to the house to hide. He said that he sat down and then saw a shot gun mounted on the wall facing the door. He asserted that he walked outside to the garden gate and that was when Cannon fired at him. He shot once as Cannon fired his second volley, striking him with a mortal wound. Cummings concluded his statement by saying, "My mother was living there and myself. The squabbling out there in front of the house about the car is how come I went out there and hearing them women hollering. I am twenty years old."
The State recalled Currington and Sheriff Watson, who offered more testimony about the defendant's statement that Buster Wells had told him to shoot him not in the self defense as Cummings maintained. Not leaving well enough alone, Cooper cross-examined Watson, who expounded even more damaging details of Cummings confession to the popular sheriff.
For its first witness, the defense called Buster Wells, who confirmed Cumming's account that it was Cannon, actually a resident of Wilkinson County, who threatened to kill his friend if he didn't shut up and leave the scene. He testified under direct examination that "Mr. Currington didn't do anything except to say 'Lord have mercy,' just like I did. I was scared. I am scared now. I don't feel good." Recounting his eight-week stay in jail before his trial, Wells commented, "I never had nothing to with the killing, except Mr. Cannon just run his car into mine. I never hurt anybody or shot anybody."
Solicitor Stephens launched an intensive cross examination but failed to get Buster to change his story. To reiterate Cummings defense, Buster was redirected to make out a case for self defense telling Mr. Cannon not to shoot Cummings. In the final moments of the testimony, Wells drastically changed his story by saying, "Mr. Cannon never shot at the defendant until after he got his gun. He throwed up his pistol but never shot him at all." In one final dooming moment, Wells, with no fear of double jeopardy, testified, "Mr. Cannon and myself were adjusting the damages done to our cars. We never invited the defendant or didn't need the defendant to help us to adjust our differences."
Devastated at what had unfolded, defense attorney Cooper rose and stated "The defense rests." Judge Kent called for a recess until 9:00 a.m. when he would entertain requests to charge to jury on the legal elements of the case. Stephens and Cooper, along with their assistants, stayed up most of the night writing out their requests to charge the jury, primarily on the elements of malice murder, manslaughter and self defense.
The court refused to charge the jury on the issue of self-defense, although it was the crux of its case that Cummings killed the defendant in front of his home in defense of his life, the lives of his family and his home, claiming that right under Georgia law. Cooper vehemently objected to the shortness of the charge, one which lasted only three and one half minutes and one which Cooper characterized as the shortest charge on record as it did not cover all phases of the trial, including the defendant's unsworn statement. Judge Kent also refused the defense's request to charge the jury on justifiable homicide. Cooper objected that the court erred when it did not inform the jury that it was the duty of the prosecutor to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, the defense objected that Judge Kent failed to inform the jury if their verdict was guilty, that they could recommend mercy for the defendant Cummings.
Just before the courthouse clock struck noon, the case was sent to the jury. Cummings was taken back to his segregated cell to anxiously await the jury's verdict. Two hours later, the jurors finished their deliberations and filed, one by one, back into the jury box. Judge Kent asked foreman F.D. Stokes had the jury reached a verdict. Stokes responded affirmatively, "Yes, your honor, we have." "What is your verdict?" the judge asked. "We the jury find the defendant Hubert Cummings is guilty of murder," Stokes announced. A roar of excited satisfaction arose from the crammed courtroom. Cummings slumped into his chair, his face covered by his hands. His momma sobbed. Solicitor Stephens softly smiled as his greeted ol' man Jim Cannon and his family.
Sheriff Watson handcuffed Cummings and escorted him to the bench. In accordance with the verdict of the jury, Judge Kent ordered, "On the first day of December 1919, you Hubert Cummings shall be executed by the sheriff of Laurens County in private. It may be witnessed by the executing officer, a sufficient guard, your relatives and such clergymen and friends as you may desire." Fixing the time of the execution between 10 o'clock a.m. and 2 o'clock p.m. where upon, Kent stated, "You will hanged by the neck until you are dead, may God have mercy on your soul."
John Cooper immediately filed a motion for a new trial on many grounds, but primarily on the refusal of the court to charge the jury on the issues which he submitted. Judge Kent granted the request and set a hearing on the matter at the Johnson County Courthouse on the morning of December 20th. After listening to the attorneys for the state and the defendant, Judge Kent ruled that there were insufficient grounds to grant a new trial, a ruling to which the defense objected. By appealing to the Supreme Court of Georgia, the execution order was effectively stayed until the high court reached a decision on the merits of the appeal.
The winter days passed so, so slowly. Cummings didn't want to die, dreading the day that his fate would be sealed by the Supreme Court. Eventually the stress began to take its toll on the prisoner. Just as a final decision was about to be handed down by the appellate court, Hubert Cummings' health began to rapidly fail. Cummings breathed his last breath in the Laurens County jail on the morning of March 28, 1920, possibly as a result of the flu epidemic which began to wane in the days before his death.
What began on a Sunday afternoon as an innocent fender bender escalated into a series of the most regrettable events in the history of Laurens County. A little girl's plea for a parasol initiated a series of unfortunate events which led to the deaths of four human beings, the wounding of two others and enough tears for several lifetimes. Church bells rang out that Palm Sunday morning. Spring had come and finally, the flowing blood of the Red Summer stopped.