Former judge will challenge Dan Dow for DA, promises to investigate jail

Judge Mike Cummins, a former Stanislaus County judge and San Luis Obispo County defense attorney, will run against Dan Dow in the June 2018 DA’s race.
Judge Mike Cummins, a former Stanislaus County judge and San Luis Obispo County defense attorney, will run against Dan Dow in the June 2018 DA’s race. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A retired Stanislaus County judge and former attorney who says the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office should investigate a series of recent inmate deaths at the County Jail is challenging incumbent DA Dan Dow in the June primary election.

Judge Mike Cummins — his legal first name is literally Judge Mike — filed papers with the California Fair Political Practices Commission to run against Dow in the June 2018 primary election. The deadline to file for the elected position is Feb. 13, according to the County Clerk’s Office.

Cummins, 62, is campaigning on his wide range of legal experience; he’s served as defense attorney, prosecutor, and ultimately as judge, where he once made national headlines for unsealing documents in the Scott Peterson murder trial.

“I’ve done just about every job that requires a (State) Bar card,” Cummins said.

The judge made an unsuccessful bid for DA in Stanislaus County before returning to practice law in San Luis Obispo, representing one of the defendants in the murder of Santa Maria teenager Dystiny Myers in 2011.

Cummins has since semi-retired — his law license went inactive in January 2017 — but he says he’s ready to get back into the local legal community, where he hopes to be an outspoken leader for the District Attorney’s Office.

“I have something of a provocative personality,” Cummins said. “But I think my skills are pretty good, and I care about what I’m doing.”

Judge Mike Cummins, who’s challenging Dan Dow for San Luis Obispo County district attorney, spends his free time performing with his country band, Judge Mike & the Lawless. Joe Johnson jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

‘Professional destiny’

Cummins’ legal experience is all over the map.

Born in San Diego, he moved to San Luis Obispo at age 3. He graduated from San Luis Obispo High School and studied business at Cal Poly.

He graduated with his law degree from the University of Arkansas and moved back to San Luis Obispo, where he practiced as a private attorney before taking a job as a deputy district attorney in Stanislaus County. As a prosecutor, Cummins said he tried a variety of serious cases, ultimately prosecuting 81 felony trials, and securing five murder convictions.

In 1994, Cummins was appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to the Stanislaus Superior Court bench in Modesto and spent the next 12 years presiding over mostly felony and misdemeanor calendars. In June 2003, Cummins was called in to unseal uncontested documents for a sick colleague in the murder case against Peterson, who in 2004 was convicted by a jury of killing his wife Lacey as well as the couple’s unborn son and sentenced to death.

“It was strange sitting by the TV and hearing Nancy Grace say your name,” Cummins said.

In 2006, Cummins made the unusual move to run for Stanislaus DA. He was defeated in a hotly contested race by current DA Birgit Fladager, then an office prosecutor fresh off her victory in the Peterson trial.

“I felt like it was my professional destiny to be district attorney (in 2006), and the voters decided it was not,” Cummins said. “But I don’t dwell on it.”

After a reassignment to family law, Cummins found he “didn’t fit the mold” for judge and retired from the bench, returning once again to San Luis Obispo to reopen his private practice.

The biggest case of his career came in 2011 when he was appointed to replace the attorney of Nipomo resident Rhonda Wisto, charged with four others in the kidnapping, torture and murder of the 15-year-old Myers. The case consumed two years of Cummins’ life and culminated in a guilty verdict for Wisto, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Judge Mike Cummins, far left, with client Rhonda Maye Wisto, second from left, listens as Wisto and her son, Frank Jacob York, are found guilty of murdering Santa Maria teen Dystiny Myers in March 2013. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Asked how he thinks voters will perceive a top county prosecutor candidate having represented a convicted murderer, Cummins makes no apologies for his defense work.

“I did the best job I could to live up to my ethical and professional obligations,” Cummins said. “The facts were what they were, the jury did what they did, and it was what it was. I don’t think there’s anything dishonorable about it.”

While contemplating a run for state insurance commissioner in June, Cummins legally changed his name to Judge Mike Cummins. He said he petitioned for the change because state ballots only list a candidate’s most recent occupation, and due to his unconventional career path, he wanted to reflect his past career as a jurist.

Challenging Dow

As a semi-retired attorney, Cummins is not in frequent communication with most of the rank-and-file deputies in the DA’s Office, a majority of which rallied Dow to victory in 2014. Cummins praised those he does know, however, and said he thinks their work is not reflected in a number of high-profile courtroom losses for the office in recent years.

“This county has the best hiring pool (for prosecutors) in the state. I have a very high professional regard for everyone I know in that office, but they have marching orders,” Cummins said. “I believe the problem is at the top.”

Specifically, Cummins alleges that the office pursues cases it shouldn’t, and that Dow “doesn’t have the skills and experience to properly evaluate cases.”

“I have nothing but respect for Dan Dow’s military service, and from everything I’ve heard about him, he’s a fine husband and a wonderful father. But I think he’s been a very poor district attorney,” Cummins said. “I plan to comment on his poor performance during the campaign, but I don’t intend it as a personal attack.”

Cummins also said that, if elected, he promises to launch a District Attorney’s Office investigation into the death of County Jail inmate Andrew Holland, who died within minutes of being released from the plastic restraint chair jail staff had left Holland in for nearly two straight days. The county called Holland’s death “natural,” though it paid a $5 million “settlement” to Holland’s family before the family even filed a claim for damages.

Two inmates died in jail custody since Holland’s January 2017 death. A civil rights investigation by the FBI is currently ongoing.

Cummins called the DA’s Office’s statement that they never investigated Holland’s death because they weren’t asked to by the Sheriff’s Office “ludicrous.”

“This is a case that cries out for a (local) investigation,” Cummins said. “I’m sure there would be a lot of people unhappy with me, but this is not a job where the No. 1 priority is having people pat you on the back.”

Outside of practicing law, Cummins, a longtime friend of late country legend Merle Haggard, also plays intermittently with his country band Judge Mike & the Lawless. A registered Democrat, he lives in San Luis Obispo with his wife of three years, Melissa, who was admitted to the State Bar last month.

Dan Dow019
District Attorney Dan Dow Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In a statement provided to The Tribune about his re-election bid, Dow wrote that he’s proud of his accomplishments over the past three years.

Dow wrote that under his leadership, the office has been “very tough on serious and violent criminals, yet appropriately compassionate with first-time youthful low-level offenders.” He lists as accomplishments the formation of the human trafficking task force, the creation of a misdemeanor diversion program, and his office’s role in the creation of the Central Coast Cyber Forensics Laboratory.

“I am excited to be re-elected, as there is much important work that needs to be done,” Dow wrote.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune