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Woman Cleared in Boy's Death : Retrial: Jury finds baby-sitter Debra Suzanne Cummings of Reseda not guilty of murder charges filed after the 9-month-old died.

July 29, 1994|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Debra Suzanne Cummings, a former PTA president from Reseda charged with murdering a 9-month-old boy placed in her care in 1990, was found not guilty Thursday.

In an abrupt climax to a retrial that had focused national attention on the quality and affordability of child care, a Van Nuys Superior Court jury deliberated only seven hours before acquitting Cummings, 36, of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and child endangerment.

She had earlier been cleared of manslaughter charges in the death of another child under her care, a 14-month-old boy.

As the verdicts were read Thursday, Cummings shook with excitement, crying out: "Oh!" She laid her head down on the table, embraced her attorney and sobbed.

"You can leave," Judge Michael J. Farrell told her. She bolted from her chair and yelled to family and friends in the corner of the courtroom: "We're going home!"

On her way to the elevator, she amended that, shouting out: "We're going to Disneyland!" Surrounded by well-wishers, she insisted she was serious: "We may stay there the next three days!"

Then, on the way down in the elevator, Cummings hugged her 10-year-old daughter, Megan, and said quietly: "It's all gone."

Gone, after four years and two trials, are criminal charges. The verdict, however, leaves unresolved the underlying mystery: How did 9-month-old Kevin Young die?

Cummings, president of the PTA at Shirley Avenue Elementary School, had advertised "Loving Child Care in My Home" for $75 per week. She has admitted repeatedly that she ran an unlicensed baby-sitting service.

On June 15, 1990, she was baby-sitting Kevin Young. The next day, he died from severe head injuries.

Prosecutors contended that Cummings attacked the boy. She maintained that the child somehow exacerbated a prior injury.

At her first trial, which ended last July, a Superior Court jury deadlocked after eight contentious days of deliberations, 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal.

Prosecutor Carol Fisch pressed for a retrial. Cummings complained that she was a victim of coincidence and the target of a vendetta.

The boy's mother, Toni Majoy-Young, testified in February before a congressional subcommittee investigating the availability of quality child care.

Meanwhile, a judge dismissed manslaughter charges against Cummings in an unrelated case, saying there was no evidence of foul play in the March, 1990, death of 14-month-old Matthew Cooley. He died after an apparent seizure while she was baby-sitting him in a park.

At the retrial, which began two weeks ago, Farrell barred any mention of Cooley's death, ruling that it would be too prejudicial for jurors.

"I'm feeling an injustice was done," Lynn Cooley, 34, of West Hills, Matthew's mother, said Thursday after the verdicts were in.

Majoy-Young was the first witness at the retrial, which was broadcast on Court TV, the cable network.

She told jurors that Kevin was "alive and well" when she dropped him off. That afternoon, after picking him up, she said, "I was screaming at him the entire time I was in the car. I said, 'Kevin, wake up. It's mom. Wake up! Wake up!' And he never did."

Majoy-Young, who was present for the entire testimony phase of the trial, was not in the courtroom for the verdict. She was on an airplane back to her new home in Baltimore, not expecting such a quick decision.

Cummings testified at the retrial in her own defense, saying she never would have hurt Kevin Young.

Her attorney, Deputy Public Defender Tamar Rachel Toister, contended that the injury did not occur at Cummings' home and said that, in some cases, symptoms of head injuries do not occur for hours or even days.

Much of the testimony came from a parade of doctors discussing the causes and effects of head injuries. One said that the injury could have been 36 hours old when Kevin Young was dropped off at Cummings' house.

The jury foreman, George Mickelwait, 49, a financial analyst from Encino, said jurors thought the doctors offered too many conflicting opinions. But the key to the acquittal, he said, was Cummings' testimony--especially her affecting manner on the stand.

"I didn't think Debra Cummings was a murderer," he said. "I didn't see it in her face, her eyes and anything else."

Prosecutor Fisch said after the verdicts were returned that she believed that the evidence against Cummings had been "overwhelming."

"What it boils down to is that even though jurors say they will convict on circumstantial evidence, they still want an eyewitness," Fisch said. "That's the problem in a child death case like this."

Defense attorney Toister countered that the reason for the acquittal was far more basic, that the prosecution had "no case."

She added: "From Day One, I've said I was going to get an acquittal."

On the way to her car, Cummings said she was "in the middle of a book deal," one for each trial. The last four years, she said, had been "hell." She added: "I want to thank those 12 people very much for letting me go home."

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