Jurors on Wednesday recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole for a woman who participated in the kidnapping, robbery, and living burial of an ailing couple.
Tiffany Cole, 41, received the death sentence in 2007, but the jury was not unanimous. Cole was ordered to be resentenced when the Florida Supreme Court changed the law to require unanimous juries for death sentences. The state’s supreme court later walked back that requirement, lowering it to a minimum 8 to 4 vote for capital punishment, but because it does not have retroactive application, Cole was still to be resentenced.
Her defense argued in a 2008 motion that though she did nothing to save Carol Sumner, 61, and James “Reggie” Sumner, 61, she did not play a direct role in actually kidnapping them from their Duval County, Florida, home on July 8, 2005, robbing them, and burying them alive in a pre-dug hole in southern Georgia.
The defense argued that her role in the crimes “was far less egregious than those acts perpetrated” by Michael James Jackson, 41, Alan Lyndell Wade, 36, and Bruce Nixon, 36.
“Though vilified in the media and by prosecutors during trial, she never entered the Sumners’ home the night they died, nor did she bind and gag them, stuff them in a trunk, drive them out in the woods and bury them alive,” the defense wrote. “Michael Jackson, Alan Wade and Bruce Nixon did these acts. However it is also true that Tiffany Cole shamefully did nothing to stop them. This Court will have to determine if her acts leading up to [the] deaths of the Sumners and her failure to do anything about the acts of the three men require that she be put to death.”
Michael James Jackson, 41, was the ringleader, taking control of the ill-gotten gains, and calling shots on where they went, Cole’s defense said.
“He presided over the digging of the holes that would become the Sumners’ graves and watched them as they died,” documents stated.
Jurors resentenced him to death on an 8 to 4 vote on May 24, which was sufficient under Florida’s status quo for capital punishment.
Wade participated in the digging of the grave and the kidnapping and robbery of the couple, Cole’s defense wrote. He was resentenced last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the new capital punishment paradigm.
Wade in court voiced regret for what he did.
“I should have helped instead of hurt you,” he said, addressing the victims.
His defense highlighted his childhood trauma and said that while he needed a father in his life, he instead ended up with Jackson, a career criminal.
Cole’s defense called Wade the “muscle.”
“He also was in the car that drove them to the pre-dug hole and participated with Jackson in their burial,” documents stated. “The State asserts in its memorandum in support of Wade receiving death that Tiffany Cole and Nixon were away from the site and at a nearby road. There was some dispute during the various trials whether Nixon came back and forth from the site to the road, as well as whether Wade did the same. There is no dispute that Tiffany Cole was never [emphasis theirs] at the gravesite during the Sumners’ burial, while Wade actually helped bury the Sumners alive, the State asserts.”
Nixon, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors, also “personally and actually participated” in the kidnapping and robbery, Cole’s defense argued.
He “could very well have participated in their burial since it could be seriously argued that he diminished his role at the gravesite to serve his own interests.”
Aggravated factors against Cole included kidnapping, the criminal being “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” and that the couple was vulnerable based on age and physical ailments, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors have highlighted the couple’s precarious physical state: Carol Sumner suffered from liver cancer, while Reggie Sumner was a severe diabetic and had recently fractured an ankle, requiring a brace, cane and wheelchair to get around. He was unable to use the restroom properly, so he had to use adult diapers. There was still a medical bracelet attached to his wrist. But he was sharp mentally, and he was conscious during the hourslong process. Carol and Reggie Sumner, who went to high school together and had reunited as a couple four decades later, hugged each other in the trunk of the vehicle in their final hours.
The medical examiner, Dr. Anthony Clark, found sand deep in their throats and respiratory systems, prosecutors wrote in a filing dated Feb. 14, 2008.
“The State cannot fathom a manner of death more wicked, more evil, more indifferent to human suffering, more painful, and more vile than that which this defendant inflicted upon Carol and James Sumner,” documents stated.
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