Ex-student sentenced to 20 years in dragging death of UM officer

Published 4:59 pm Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A former University of Mississippi student was sentenced to 20 years in prison Monday after pleading guilty to a reduced charge in the 2006 dragging death of an Ole Miss police officer.

Daniel Cummings, 21, of Germantown, Tenn., pleaded guilty to manslaughter by culpable negligence on the same day jury selection was to begin for his capital murder trial in Oxford.

Under the capital murder charge, prosecutors were seeking life in prison without parole for Cummings in the Oct. 21, 2006, killing of officer Robert Langley, 30. The district attorney’s office was following the wishes of Langley’s family in opting not to seek the death penalty under the capital murder charge.

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District Attorney Ben Creekmore said the officer’s widow, Lisa Langley, knew about the manslaughter plea before Cummings entered it.

“She encouraged me to resolve this short of going to trial,” Creekmore said Monday in an interview from Oxford. “It would be a very high emotional cost to her family. This was a public injury, but it was also a private injury.”

Cummings’ attorney, Steven Farese Sr. of Ashland, Miss., said he believes the capital murder charge was excessive and the manslaughter plea is “probably as close to justice as could be achieved in this particular case.”

Farese said he started meeting with Cummings and Cummings’ parents on Friday night about a plea to manslaughter.

“When you’re weighing trying the case where the penalty if things go south is life without parole for a 21-year-old college kid, they didn’t want to take a risk,” Farese said. “A police officer lost his life due to my guy being stupid and panicking.”

Prosecutors said Cummings had drugs and alcohol in his system when the officer was dragged to death.

Farese also represented Mary Winkler, who was convicted in April of manslaughter in the 2006 shooting death of her minister husband in Selmer, Tenn. Farese said Mississippi is a conservative state with “archaic” laws that carry a heavier penalty for manslaughter than, for example, the laws in Tennessee.

A University of Mississippi police spokeswoman said the department is not commenting on the Cummings case.

Circuit Judge Andy Howorth, who set the 20-year sentence, also ordered Cummings to forfeit the Ford F-150 pickup the student was driving when Langley was dragged about 200 yards during a traffic stop.

“From our point of view, that was the weapon that was used in this case,” Creekmore said.

Authorities said Cummings drove off as Langley reached into the truck to turn it off. The officer hit his head when he fell to the ground, and died hours later at Regional Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn.

The truck will be given to Lafayette County, and officials will decide whether to use it or sell it.

“They could put it to law-enforcement use,” Creekmore said. “I think that would be a fitting tribute to Robert Langley.”

The prosecutor said that under Mississippi law, Cummings will have to serve at least 85 percent of the 20-year sentence before becoming eligible for parole. That’s 17 years.

Court officials said that because of extensive news coverage about the case, 350 people had been summoned for the jury pool — twice the number as the previous record in the court.

Langley was a four-year veteran of the 30-officer police department at Ole Miss. The father of four also served in the Mississippi Army National Guard as a field artillery man. He returned in April 2006 after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Cummings has been held in the Lafayette County jail since his arrest last year.