Of the countless murder trials Sumner County District Attorney Ray Whitley has prosecuted during the last 39 years, only five have involved the death penalty.
Each of those cases centered around murders that occurred during the 1980s with four taking place in Sumner County and one in Robertson County where Whitley also served as district attorney from 1980 until 1984.
“The death penalty is supposed to be for the worst of the worst,” Whitley said about the cases. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the value of the person’s life who is killed. Not every first-degree murder would quality for the death penalty (under state law).”
The last time Sumner County had a death penalty trial was in 1991 – 28 years ago.
Earlier this month, prosecutors filed a notice to seek the death penalty against accused Westmoreland mass murder suspect Michael Cummins who is accused of violently killing eight people between the ages of 12 and 69 years old in the northern part of the county earlier this year.
An arraignment hearing for Cummins was held Friday in Sumner County Criminal Court. The 25-year-old was indicted Aug. 8 on a dozen charges related to the killings, which the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has called the worst homicide event to occur in the state in at least two decades.
A settlement hearing for the case is scheduled to take place Nov. 14.
“In all criminal trials guilt must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt,” Whitley wrote in a news release on the same day the indictments were issued. “Likewise, as is the case of determining guilt of a defendant in a criminal trial at least one statutory aggravating circumstance must be proven by the state beyond a reasonable doubt before a sentence of death can be imposed.”
No documented Sumner executions
In Tennessee, all individuals convicted of a capital offense were hanged up until 1913, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. However, no official records of those executed exist.
Since capital punishment resumed in 1916, there have been 136 executions carried out by the state. Of those, none have involved cases from Sumner County.
Between 1983 and 1991, Whitley was able to secure convictions along with death penalty sentences for David Carl Duncan in connection with a rape and murder in Gallatin; Edmund Zagorski for the murder two people in Robertson County; William Wesley Goad for a murder in Millersville; and Roosevelt Bigbee for a murder in Hendersonville.
While their convictions were all upheld, the sentences for Duncan and Bigbee were later overturned to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Goad died in prison.
In November, Zagorski became the only person Whitley has prosecuted to be executed. The 63-year-old had been found guilty more than 30 years earlier of luring two men into the woods in Robertson County and slitting their throats as part of fake plan to get marijuana.
Due to existing state law, Whitley was not allowed to attend the execution.
“I didn’t have any qualms about him getting the death penalty,” Whitley said about Zagorski. “I would have gone if I had been allowed to, not because I want to see somebody die, but I felt like if I was big enough to ask somebody to give him the death penalty I ought to be big enough to see it carried out. I felt like it was my responsibility. It’s not like I want to run from it.”
By carrying out the death penalty, Whitley said he believes it demonstrates “how much we value life” as a society.
He also pointed out that the victims “almost always never get the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.”
“Somebody on death row can read the Bible and get right with God and be forgiven for what he or she did,” Whitley added. “They have deprived their victim of that opportunity.
“I don’t become joyous that someone has been (executed), but I feel like that is justice and the law has been fulfilled as it should be.”
SUMNER’S FIRST DEATH PENALTY CASE
Next week: Read more about the murder of two Gallatin women that led to the first Sumner County death penalty trial in modern history in 1983.