A Westmoreland man accused of killing eight people in northern Sumner County in early 2019 will face two separate jury trials, a Sumner County judge ruled last week.
In a 20-page decision released Friday, Criminal Court Judge Dee David Gay ruled that 27-year-old Michael Cummins will stand trial for the murder of James Dunn, 63, separately from the other seven.
Dunn was found dead near his cabin on Ransom Mandrell Road after it caught fire on April 17, 2019. A rifle that authorities believe may have been stolen from him was located less than two weeks later inside a home on Charles Brown Road where six people were found brutally murdered on April 27.
That same day, authorities also discovered that 69-year-old Shirley Fehrle had been killed inside her home on Luby Brown Road.
While the gun creates a connection between two of the crime scenes, Gay wrote in his ruling that he found “no basis to join the crimes at all three locations because there is absolutely no material issue common to the crimes committed at the Fehrle residence that would be admissible at the trial of the crimes committed at the… Dunn property.”
Cummins has pleaded not guilty to the 12 criminal charges he faces, which include eight counts of first-degree murder stemming from what the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has described as the worst homicide event to take place in the state in at least two decades.
Defense attorneys had asked that three separate trials be held based on the different crime scenes.
“Anytime you introduce another homicide in a homicide case the prejudicial effect is very significant,” Cummins’ attorney Paul Bruno said during a court hearing in July. “He has a right to be tried fairly on all three of those incidents.”
Sumner County District Attorney Ray Whitley disagreed, arguing that the cases should not be separated because there was “no way to untie one crime scene from the others.”
In addition to the gun found inside the home on Charles Brown Road, shoes were also located with Cummins’ DNA in them that matched prints found in blood at Fehrle’s residence, according to testimony from law enforcement officials.
Prosecutors alleged during the July court hearing that Cummins had killed Dunn to cover up the theft of his gun and later killed Fehrle to hide the theft of her black Kia Forte.
“I had been told that the family had become aware that Michael had stolen a vehicle and that his mom and dad were upset,” TBI Special Agent Andrew Graves testified about what happened shortly before their murders. “We had been told through interviews that his parents were going to turn him in and call the police because he had stolen that vehicle.”
According to police, the six victims found dead inside the home on Charles Brown Road ranged in age from 12 to 64 years old and included Cummins’ mother, father and uncle. Cummins is also charged with the attempted murder of his grandmother who was hospitalized for more than a month after the attack.
According to the medical examiner, all eight murder victims died from blunt force injuries.
A trial for Cummins related to seven of the murders is scheduled to begin on April 20, 2022. A separate trial relating to the Dunn case will take place at a later date, according to Whitley. If convicted, prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty for the 27-year-old.