BELFAST, Maine — To the cheers of her family and supporters, Amber Cummings walked away Thursday from Waldo County Superior Court with a suspended sentence for the shooting death of her husband.
Cummings, 32, of Belfast, pleaded guilty in November to manslaughter in the Dec. 9, 2008, death of her husband, James Cummings, 29, whom she shot twice in the head while he slept at their home a short distance from the courthouse.
Under the terms of the plea bargain, Cummings accepted a sentence of eight years in prison with all but one year suspended and six years’ probation.
Although Deputy Attorney General Leane Zania argued that Cummings should be sentenced to a year in jail to send a message to the community, Justice Jeffrey Hjelm suspended the entire sentence and placed Cummings on probation for six years.
“She will now stand as a convicted criminal,” Hjelm said. “This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The real sentence is eight years.”
Conditions of the probation require that she remain in Maine and continue with the therapy she and her daughter have been undergoing since the killing.
Information revealed during the case indicated that Amber Cummings and her 10-year-old daughter, Claira, had been subjected to years of emotional and physical violence at the hands of James Cummings.
Cummings also sexually abused his wife on repeated occasions. He also had terrorist views and was building a “dirty bomb” when his wife killed him. Cummings told his wife and daughter how he planned to set off his bombs and kill his family during an attack in Washington, D.C., at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
“James Cummings built two prisons,” Hjelm observed at one point. “One in which he lived, the other in which he put the defendant.”
The killing drew the FBI’s attention after Nazi mementos, radioactive materials and instructions on how to build a “dirty bomb” were found in their home.
Facing a courtroom filled to capacity with Cummings’ supporters, Justice Hjelm noted that while the sentence may be seen by some as “falling short” of the seriousness of the crime, the circumstances endured by Amber Cummings and her daughter under Cummings’ “sadistic” roof were “shocking and unimaginable.”
Hjelm said people who viewed the killing as Amber Cummings simply walking into her husband’s bedroom and shooting him misunderstood the facts of the case. The emotional prison where Cummings held his family left her believing she had no other way out. Cummings talked constantly of killing and by doing so had conditioned his wife to think accordingly.
“She was unable to recognize the path to freedom,” Hjelm said. “My view is she had reached a point where she did not feel she had choices.”
Hjelm cited the “extraordinarily thorough” psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Andrew Wish that found Amber Cummings was tortured by her husband for his “sadistic self-gratification” and how he had her convinced that he had supernatural abilities to reach out from even the grave.
Discussing the two shots that killed her husband, Amber Cummings told Wish that “The second shot was to make sure he was dead, and make sure he would not come back and make sure he would not suffer,” Hjelm read from the report.
Defense attorney Eric Morse spoke in detail of how James Cummings controlled every aspect of his family’s lives. For nearly a decade they cowered in fear of his every move. Cummings believed that white men ruled the world, he said, and that women were subservient.
Cummings had a fascination for Adolf Hitler, and Morse said the first thing a person encountered when walking in through his home’s front door was a flag emblazoned with the Nazi swastika. His bedroom was filled with pornographic films depicting anal sex, and his computer was filled with child pornography.
“James Cummings, in my mind, thoroughly personified evil,” Morse said.
Psychiatrists who examined Amber Cummings determined that she developed a “shared psychotic disorder” in which she accepted the beliefs of her husband. Morse recalled that when he met with her five hours after the shooting, he encountered a “strange individual” with no social skills who was afraid of him because he was a stranger.
“She was like a caged animal that had been released,” he said. “We all struggled to get her to open up.”
Cummings, wearing a pale blue cable knit sweater, bowed her head and sobbed through much of the two-hour hearing. Sobs could also be heard from the gallery of supporters as Morse and therapists who treated Cummings and her daughter described the conditions they both endured.
Though Cummings did not address the court, she expressed deep remorse for her actions in a five-page letter submitted with the case. In it she also stated that she was “thankful to the prosecution for defending my husband’s life. For many years I alone have defended my husband’s action but my loyalty and love did not save his soul. I will carry the burden of failure through the rest of my days.”
Cummings said she was “terribly sad” that James Cummings would be remembered by his daughter and the public as “a terrorist that planned to murder on a mass scale and a man that had a terrible sexual desire to make women and children suffer.” She said she was haunted by his memory and that “he reaches out from beyond the grave all the time to this day.”
She revealed that when she became pregnant with a second child when her daughter was 2, Cummings forced her to have an abortion because he “believed the child would have been born to do something bad to him.” She said he threatened to “cut the child from my womb himself” if she did not go through with the abortion. She said Cummings claimed to have killed three people and that, “with the proper training,” his daughter could become a “serial killer just like him.”
She said that she and her child were more like sisters than mother and daughter as they “clung to each other for survival. We still cling to each other for survival.” She said her child was completely isolated from the outside world by her father and indoctrinated with his beliefs.
Even after his death he was still a presence in her daughter’s life, she wrote. Cummings recalled her child clutching her hands and saying, “Mom, please promise that you still care about killing all the blacks. If Dad is not here to build the bomb, I will have to do it when I grow up.” She said until the day he died Cummings constantly threatened to kill her and her child.
“I have been faced with my baby’s death or the threat of it so many times that I have lost all desire to live,” she wrote. “I am not like normal people anymore. I don’t desire anything and not a day goes by that I won’t suffer for taking the life of a man I loved that resulted in saving the life of the child I love.”
When Cummings left the courthouse she was met by cheers and hugs from her many friends and supporters. She said she was humbled by Hjelm’s decision and would continue to work to improve her situation and that of her daughter.
“Its’ going to be very hard. It’s going to be a long way to recovery, and I will not give up on it given the community we have because they all love us,” she said. As for Claira, Cummings smiled and added, “She’ll do fine, she’ll be a good girl.”