Jurors find for former Arkansas officer in fatal shot; ’12 encounter drew lawsuit by man’s mother

A federal jury deliberated for about 3½ hours Thursday before clearing a former Alexander police officer, Nancy Cummings, of any liability in the Sept. 8, 2012, shooting death of 30-year-old Carleton Wallace of Bryant.

Cummings, a rookie officer who hadn't yet attained law enforcement certification, was on patrol that Saturday in Alexander, with her daughter, an officer-hopeful, riding in the passenger seat.

Toward the end of a shift that had consisted of only two events -- directing traffic for a funeral and rescuing a dog that had become tangled in a basketball goal -- she drove up behind Wallace, who she said was walking shirtless down the middle of Brookwood Road with a gun tucked into the back of his pants.

Cummings told jurors in U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson's court this week that she pulled up in her patrol car -- a black Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle -- and began speaking to Wallace, who she said replied in slow, drawn-out words that made her believe he was intoxicated.

After telling him to drop the gun and raise both arms, he pulled the 9mm handgun from his waistband, she and her daughter testified. They said he pointed it in Cummings' direction before looking down at it or at Cummings' daughter and then tossing it into nearby woods -- where other testimony showed it was later found with the safety disengaged, in the firing position.

Cummings said she had drawn her gun and gotten out of the Dodge, positioning herself behind the vehicle's door, and ordered Wallace to get on the ground. When he wouldn't comply, she said she ordered him to place his hands on the hood of the Dodge instead.

While he was leaning over the hood, Cummings said, she used a police maneuver called a protective "tuck" to hold her gun against her side while she tried to get one of Wallace's hands behind his back. Her plan was to holster her gun, grab his other hand and then cuff him. But she said he suddenly turned, jerking her "real hard," and somehow the gun went off, though she didn't immediately realize it and was confused when Wallace -- shot in the middle of the back -- staggered and dropped to the ground.

Two boys, ages 8 and 10, who were outside a nearby mobile home later told state police that it looked to them as if Wallace had tried to run and then Cummings had grabbed the gun and intentionally shot him. One boy said she appeared to take the gun out of its holster; the other said it looked like she picked it up off the hood. The boys couldn't be found for this week's trial, but their previous testimony was read into the record for the jury.

While one of the boys estimated that they were 8 feet away at the time of the shooting, defense attorneys said a state police diagram made after the incident shows they were 52 yards away. A firearms expert hired by Cummings' attorneys said that because sound travels slower than light, the boys probably saw Wallace moving away and then heard the shot, leading them to falsely perceive that he was running before he was shot.

In fact, the expert said, if Wallace had started to run and then Cummings had grabbed her gun and aimed, then in the time it took for all that to happen, Wallace would have been much farther away than 3 feet 8 inches, the distance from the hood where the first drop of blood was found on the ground. The expert, Emmanuel Kapelsohn, said blood drops and the diameter of the stippling surrounding Wallace's wound indicated he was 3 to 4 inches from the gun when he was shot. If he had been farther away, Kapelsohn said, the stippling from gunshot wouldn't have reached him.

Kapelsohn also testified that the actions described were consistent with Cummings experiencing an involuntary muscular contraction, which caused her finger to fire the gun instinctively when she was thrown off-balance.

In closing arguments Thursday morning, attorneys Reggie Koch and Jimmy Morris -- representing Wallace's mother, Jacquelyn, in the lawsuit against Cummings -- complained that they couldn't afford to hire an expert to counter Kapelsohn and another expert, who together cost about $6,600. Koch suggested that Cummings, who had been scheduled to attend law enforcement training, may have relied on her previous training at the Arkansas Department of Correction, where guards can shoot fleeing suspects.

John Wilkerson, an Arkansas Municipal League attorney who represented Cummings, told jurors that to find Cummings liable for Wallace's death, the plaintiff had to prove by the greater weight of evidence "that this was no accident -- it was intentional."

He said the plaintiffs' attorneys "want you to believe the boys when it's helpful" but not when their statements contradict each other.

"We're not calling the boys liars," Wilkerson said, but "they're little boys."

He said Cummings -- who, unknown to jurors, was acquitted of manslaughter in 2013 by a Saline County jury -- "is not a malicious person," recalling testimony that she has undergone therapy to try to cope with Wallace's death.

Jurors also didn't know that after his death, blood tests showed Wallace had ingested a high dose of methamphetamines, as well as anti-anxiety medication and marijuana.

After the verdict, Wilkerson said, "It's been five years for her, and I know it's a huge relief for her. I'm happy it's over, for her."

Cummings resigned after the shooting, while facing the manslaughter charge, and still lives in central Arkansas but has not returned to law enforcement work.

The plaintiffs' attorneys, who didn't ask jurors for any particular amount of money if they found Cummings liable, said Jacquelyn Wallace knew ahead of time that it would be a difficult case.

Metro on 12/08/2017