Only woman on Florida’s death row loses appeal

TALLAHASSEE — The only woman on Florida’s death row, who was convicted for her role in the murders of a Jacksonville couple, lost an appeal Thursday in the state Supreme Court.

The justices unanimously affirmed Tiffany Ann Cole’s two first-degree murder convictions and death sentences. They rejected an argument that her life should be spared because she didn’t know her co-defendants intended to kill James “Reggie” Sumner and his wife, Carol, by burying them alive. The victims, both 61, were killed after being kidnapped and robbed in 2005.

Two men also have been sentenced to death in the case, and a third is serving a 45-year prison term.

The high court acknowledged that evidence shows Cole, 28, was not present when the victims were buried and she hadn’t realized such a cruel method would be used to kill them. They suffocated from the dirt that was piled atop them.

Six of the seven justices also agreed Circuit Judge Michael Weatherby of Jacksonville should not have cited the manner of death as a factor supporting the sentences recommended by a jury. They ruled it was a harmless mistake, though, because six other aggravating circumstances justified the penalty.

“There is no reasonable possibility that the jury’s recommendation or the trial court’s sentencing decision would have been different,” the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.

Cole also was sentenced to death because there were multiple victims who had been kidnapped and then killed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner for financial gain and to avoid arrest. Also, the victims were particularly vulnerable because of their ages.

Cole was the only defendant who knew the Sumners, once neighbors of her father. She used that knowledge to help plan the robbery and abduction, rented a car the foursome drove to the victims’ home, bought tape and gloves used in the crime, and held a flashlight while the three men dug a large hole in Georgia just across the state line, according to trial testimony.

Bruce Kent Nixon, who received the 45-year sentence after agreeing to testify against his co-defendants, said all four knew the victims would be killed. However, Michael Jackson, Cole’s boyfriend, had told the others he would do it by lethal injection. Cole denied she knew the couple would be killed.

Jackson and Alan Lyndell Wade also have been sentenced to death.

The group used a toy gun to abduct the Sumners. They were bound with tape, placed in the trunk of their car, and driven to the Georgia burial site. They were buried after being forced to give out personal identification numbers for their financial accounts.

The Supreme Court also rejected several other arguments by Assistant Public Defender W.C. McLain of Tallahassee, including his claim the judge should not have allowed jurors to see photos of the suspects partying. He did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

State officials applauded the ruling.

“The attorney general’s office places a high priority on public safety and this ruling upholds that,” said Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Florida has executed only three women, including a slave put to death in 1848 for killing a planter. The other two were more recent: Judy Buenoano in 1998 and Aileen Wuornos in 2002.

Buenoano, known as the “Black Widow,” was electrocuted for poisoning her husband with arsenic in Orange County to collect on his life insurance. She also was convicted of drowning a son after he’d been paralyzed by arsenic and attempting to kill her fiance in Pensacola with arsenic and a car bomb.

Wuornos, a prostitute, was executed for murdering a Clearwater man. She also pleaded guilty to killing five other customers along central Florida highways.