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Supreme court hears arguments for murder case retrial

Woman on death row appealing murder conviction over ineffective attorneys

Carol and Reggie Sumner
Carol and Reggie Sumner

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A woman sitting on death row for the 2005 kidnapping and murder of a Jacksonville couple went before the Florida Supreme Court Thursday asking for a new trial.

Tiffany Cole, 33, asked for a new trial after appealing that the attorneys who represented her at the time were ineffective.

Cole was in the courtroom Thursday in front of seven Supreme Court justices. The defense and prosecution presented arguments as to why they believe Cole deserves or doesn't deserve a new trial. 

St. Augustine defense attorney Wayne Henderson, representing Cole on appeal, said she had ineffective counsel during the first trial and should be retried.

Henderson argued that Cole's original trial lawyer, Quentin Till, expected to reach a plea deal for Cole, sentencing her to more than 50 year, and was unprepared for trial when Cole rejected the state's offer.

Cole was one of three people convicted in the case. Alan Wade and Cole's boyfriend, Michael Jackson, the man believed to be the mastermind of the crime, are also sitting on death row. A third man, Bruce Nixon, testified against the others and is spending 45 years in prison.

Prosecutors said the group kidnapped, robbed and buried Carol and Reggie Sumner alive in Charlton County, Georgia.

Cole doesn't believe she is guilty of first-degree murder because she didn't personally kill and bury the couple.

The defense said Cole had a low IQ and was not intelligent enough to comprehend what she was doing. Henderson said that if Cole's original defense would have examined Cole earlier, they would know more of what they're dealing with.

"Dr. Herkoff examined her, spent many hours with her, interviewed all the witnesses that are associated with her, gave her intelligence tests and so forth, and he determined that her true intelligence was that she would be in about the 10th percentile. I think she was down to an IQ of about 82, not up to 100-110. If the jury would've heard that," Henderson said.

The state said she knew right from wrong and scored in a high percentile on school testing. Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Snurkowski said Till had listened in on Jackson's trial and knew how to "sanitize" Cole's case, making her look like a good person who got caught up with the wrong crowd.

"She was a prostitute because she was a drug dealer and she had to support her drug habits so she sold drugs and she met Mr. Jackson selling drugs and he tried to rob her. After that, they started up an acquaintance and suddenly after three months they're going together and they're moving down to Jacksonville because they're going to start a business together," Snurkowski said. 

Reverend Jean Clark, the sister of Reggie Sumner, believes Cole not only got a fair trial, but she believes the lawyers who represented Cole were more than competent. Clark also asks that people remember Reggie Sumner, and his wife, Carol, not Cole. 

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"We believe that they got a fair trial. And we believe that they got the right, you know, what was due to them," Clark said.

For Clark, the last 10 years have been very hard and very painful. Every day, she thinks about her brother and his wife. Still, her thoughts are never far from the four people involved with their murders and the woman now asking for a new trial.

"I too grew up with learning disabilities and I also experienced much abuse in my life in horrible ways. I was raised in a poor home and with nothing but hand me down clothes and shoes. None of these unfortunate things in my life caused me to want to do evil or partake in killing someone, even more horrible two innocent, helpless people," Clark said. "Most people are going to try to come back with something like that after the fact, because they're going to try to find a loophole and get off. But justice has a voice, and justice has to be served." 

According to police, Cole knew the Sumners and had even bought a car from them. They say she provided the link to the couple who were kidnapped, robbed and murdered, their bodies found in a shallow grave in Georgia.

"Two lives are gone and she was the connecting piece of the puzzle. The murders would not have happened if it had not been for Tiffany Cole. I am fully persuaded, without a shadow of doubt that my brother and sister-in-law would still be alive today if they had never met Tiffany Cole," Clark said. 

Photos taken after the murder from inside a rented limo show the group smiling around the money they stole, seemingly unconcerned with the two lives that had just been lost.

But during her trial, Cole pointed the finger of blame at her boyfriend, Jackson.

"But please remember, I didn't do this. I am not the monster that created this, but I regret meeting him," Cole said, talking about Jackson.

For Clark, the thought of possibly going through another trial weighs heavily on her heart and undoubtedl on the hearts of many others who loved the Sumners.

"I have family members that are still not the same and never will be the same. In fact, I don't like to involve them too much into things like this, because they can't deal with it," Clark said.

Clark remembers the Sumners as a couple very much in love who would do anything for anybody, and all she wants is justice.

"And as I sat in a courtroom one day, I saw the ground open, and I saw in it a hurtling scream come out. And the blood of my brother and sister-in-law, my brother, Reggie, and my sister-in-law, Carol, cried out for justice. Justice has a voice," Clark said.

The Supreme Court justices did not make a decision and there is really no timetable as to when they will make a decision. 


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