The compassionate ‘steady hand’ in the Wake DA’s office retires after nearly 30 years

Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings in court on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center. It was his last day before retirement.
Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings in court on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center. It was his last day before retirement. tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

In 1992, near the start of his long career as a Wake County prosecutor, Howard Cummings took the case against a teenager who whacked an umpire with a baseball bat — angry over a called strike.

Cummings negotiated a guilty plea from the young batter. But as part of his punishment, the teen agreed to call a series of Little League games to better understand how it feels to wear the mask and play by the rules — a move Cummings engineered out of sympathy for the injured umpire.

Cummings retired Friday as Wake’s chief assistant district attorney, having handled thousands of cases from drunken driving to capital murder. He showed the same compassion in his last case as he did among his first.

As soon as a teen from Cary pleaded guilty to strangling his mother, driven by what Cummings described as “bottled-up” aggression, the prosecutor stepped to console the boy’s father, who sat grieving in the audience. It was a trademark move for a man who has seen the worst society can dish out.

“I want them to know, when they walk away from here, that someone is still thinking of them,” Cummings said.

Cummings, 65, has argued on the state’s behalf in some of the most high-profile cases of the past several decades, notably murder convicts Brad Cooper and Jason Young.

Cummings brought an understated courtroom style short on bombast that still carried the weight of the crime. In the case of Cooper, on trial in 2011 for killing his wife in Cary, Cummings held his hand to his throat for three minutes so jurors would understand the length of time required to strangle a victim.

“It’s only one minute,” he said after a long silence, waiting quietly for another 60 seconds, then another. “Now she’s dead.”

Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings, left, chats with then-District Attorney Colon Willoughby during the Matthew Grant trial in 2004. The two attorneys have been friends for years, and Willoughby once talked Cummings out of dropping out of law school. News & Observer file photo Scott Lewis

After Friday’s final case, Cummings recalled that he had worked seven years in private practice between stints as a prosecutor in Pitt and Wake counties. But the district attorney’s office in Raleigh drew him out of his own office. He wanted to be in the courtroom, not running a business.

“Howard has been a steady hand on the till that has kept our office steered toward justice,” District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said. “In every case, he has had one priority: Doing the right thing. He’s helped countless citizens and shepherded dozens of victims through the worst moments of their lives with compassion and skill. We haven’t always agreed, but when we haven’t, I’ve almost always learned he was right.”

Cummings said he had roughly 10 or 15 years left to practice law and he wants to try something new. So in January, he will start a new chapter with the Raleigh firm Tharrington Smith.

In 2011, Prosecutor Howard Cummings holds up the dress Nancy Cooper was thought to have been wearing the night before she disappeared from her home. Her husband, Brad, has been charged with first-degree murder. News & Observer file photo

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway thanked Cummings for his “sage counsel,” and the courtroom stood to applaud.

When he returns, Cummings will find himself on the opposite side of the courtroom but still centered.

“It might have been Vince Lombardi who said, ‘The best defense is to know the offense,’ “ he said. “In a lot of ways, we’re just trying to do the same thing: Look at the facts and get resolution.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.