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Date of Issue: May 07, 2008

Man acquitted in shooting of off-duty officer

A man who spent 13 months in jail awaiting trial in connection with the off-duty shooting of a Holmes Beach police officer walked tall - and free - from the Manatee County Courthouse May 1.

A jury last week acquitted James Perkins, 20, of Bradenton. He had been arrested and charged last April with felony attempted-murder with a firearm for allegedly shooting at off-duty Holmes Beach Police Officer James Cumston.

A two-day trial began April 30 at the courthouse in Bradenton before Judge Debra Johnes Riva and the six-member jury.

Cumston, arriving for court April 30 in his police uniform, was the first witness called by assistant State Attorney EricReisinger.

Cumston briefly reviewed his career - more than 22 years in law enforcement, most of the time spent with HBPD, where he is a patrol officer.

The witness then described his recollection of the events on April 4, 2007, near his home in the 2700 block of 36th Ave. E., Bradenton.

“Do you remember the day?” Reisinger asked.

“Very well,” Cumston replied.

He said at about 1:30 p.m. he was preparing to work an evening shift when he noticed his dogs barking. “My animals … went ballistic,” he said.

Cumston went out his front door and saw a man leaning against the privacy fence that separated his yard from his neighbor’s property.

As Cumston approached the man, he called, “What are you doing there?”

Cumston said he then noticed a second man standing outside his neighbor’s bedroom window with a screen in his hands.

“I realized what was going on.… I stopped dead in my tracks,” he said.

As the two men ran off, Cumston returned to his house, where he collected his car keys, cell phone and gun to give chase.

Cumston next got into his Chevrolet Blazer and went looking for the suspects. When he found them, he said a passenger shot at his vehicle and the shrapnel from a bullet hit his leg caused a minor injury.

“He was trying to shoot out the tires,” Cumston said.

“How many times did the passenger shoot at your car?” Reisinger asked.

“A lot,” Cumston answered.

Cumston said he continued to pursue the suspects, four men in a black Dodge Neon. He repeatedly said Perkins was the driver of the vehicle, the same man he saw earlier leaning against his privacy fence.

At one point, Cumston said, the Neon stopped in the center of the street and the driver “rolled out” and began shooting at the Blazer. One bullet went through Cumston’s windshield and also shattered the glass in the back of the SUV. The bullet missed Cumston’s head by inches.

“I threw my 380 in my left hand and I took the fight back to him at that point,” Cumston said, adding that he fired five rounds.

“Did you strike the defendant?” Reisinger asked.

“I did not,” Cumston said.

“Did you strike the car?” Reisinger asked.

“I did,” replied Cumston.

Then the driver returned to the Neon and the vehicle sped away, with Cumston in pursuit until his Blazer suffered a flat tire.

The license tag on the Neon, which Cumston provided to a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, was matched to a Neon owned by Carrie Boyett, another state witness.

As MCSO deputies were on the way to question Boyett about the Neon, she was reporting the vehicle stolen at Perkins’ request, according to Reisinger.

During his cross-examination of Cumston, defense attorney Brett McIntosh focused on the officer’s description of the driver, trying to cast doubt on the accuracy of his identification.

In an early interview with MCSO, Cumston said he couldn’t guess the height of the driver who shot at him.

McIntosh wondered why not, since Cumston claimed the driver was the same man he had seen leaning against the fence, and then running or walking away.

More vividly, McIntosh emphasized Cumston’s description of the man by the privacy fence as of medium build, about 5 feet 8 inches or five feet 9 inches. The attorney then asked Perkins, wearing a dark pinstriped suit, to stand. The slim young man is 6 feet 8 inches tall and his height his most noticeable trait.

“Nowhere,” said McIntosh to Cumston, “did you ever say anything about him being tall.”

Cumston explained in his testimony that the man he saw was either crouched, leaning or standing on lower ground.

Cumston said over the last year he thought about the suspect’s height and realized the suspect was probably taller than he realized.

“Part of your job … is to be very observant as a police officer,” said McIntosh. “You want to determine how tall someone is.”

“But I’m not normally under these circumstances,” Cumston replied.

Several other elements were factors in the case.

McIntosh referred to the circumstances that led to Perkins’ arrest as “a perfect storm,” a collection of events and reports that led to the misidentification of Perkins as the driver who shot at Cumston.

Because a police officer was injured, there was a lot of pressure to quickly identify a suspect and make an arrest, McIntosh said. Also, because Perkins borrowed Boyett’s car, he seemed the logical suspect, which led MCSO to create a photo lineup that McIntosh said made Perkins seem the clear suspect. And because Cumston is a trained police officer, law enforcement and the state attorney’s office were eager to accept his photo ID of Perkins.

McIntosh said another much shorter man better fits Cumston’s initial description of the driver, but a photograph of him was not included in the lineup.

Reisinger emphasized that Perkins made conflicting statements to police, that he asked Boyett to lie and report the car stolen, then had Jamie Kingston, an ex-girlfriend, drive him to Georgia, where he hid out until he was arrested on April 5, 2007.

McIntosh acknowledged that Perkins ran to Georgia, but said he did so because he was afraid of “being fingered” by law enforcement for shooting at a police officer, not because he committed such a crime.

Also introduced during the trial was a recorded jail call from Perkins, who did not testify, in which he asked a witness to lie about who shot at the officer.

On May 1, the issue went to the jury for deliberation, a process that took about one hour.

With the jury’s acquittal, the many relatives and friends gathered in the courtroom to support Perkins began applauding and Riva asked that the courtroom be cleared to bring order.

Released, Perkins turned to his mother and said, “I’m coming home.”

Had Perkins been convicted, he could have faced 30 years in prison.

No others have been arrested in connection with the incident.