‘We did Kevin justice’: Mother reacts to guilty plea in Orange County opioid death case

Colleen Hammond /chammond@newsobserver.com

His whole life, his mother said, Kevin Cummings was “like a pitbull”: focused, driven and always latching onto the things he wanted.

As a toddler, Kevin loved to chase ducks on the Long Island Sound with his father. Day after day, he would do his best to catch a duck, to no avail. But that never deterred him, Christie Barker-Cummings said.

“I’ll get you tomorrow,” the little boy would mutter under his breath.

“He approached everything in life that way,” Barker-Cummings said.

Although a quality she loved in her son, she recognizes how it contributed to the events that led to the Orange County Courthouse on Tuesday morning.

Cummings died of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose in November 2018, less than a week after his 18th birthday.

In March 2019, Nathan Windham, of Hillsborough, was charged with second-degree murder for trading the laced heroin with the teenager for some marijuana. If convicted on that charge, he would have faced up to 26 years in prison.

On Tuesday, Windham accepted a plea bargain with the District Attorney’s Office, pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, selling and distribution of controlled substances and selling and distributing counterfeit controlled substances.

“Addiction is a terrible thing,” Windham’s defense attorney Donald Dickerson said.

At the time of the fatal trade with Cummings, Dickerson said Windham was deep in his battle with substance use disorder.

Since Cummings’ death, Dickerson said Windham has turned his life around, forever marked by the impact this event has had on his life.

“I can’t express how sorry I am in the words of this letter,” Windham said, reading to Barker-Cummings through tears.

“I realize a lot of people have been hurt and their lives forever changed from my poor judgment,” he said.

A few rows back in the courtroom, Barker-Cummings nodded along, tearing up at Windham’s words.

“I could tell he really has remorse and he’s carrying pain,” Barker-Cummings said.

In their shared pain, Barker-Cummings said there is the potential for immense healing on both sides.

“I was able to let go of a lot of bitterness I held,” Barker-Cummings said.

She said she found the description of Windham’s addiction recovery particularly moving.

Dickerson said Windham has been drug-free for 18 months.

“I know that doesn’t sound like a long time,” Dickerson said. “But when you’re dealing with addiction, it’s a long time.”

Windham was granted the opportunity to participate in ongoing drug recovery programs from prison, something Dickerson specifically asked of the judge.

During her son’s addiction Barker-Cummings said she learned to be understanding of her son’s illness, and that he was not always in control of his actions. Her forgiveness toward Windham is guided by that same understanding.

“We (Windham and Cummings) both had something in common: addiction and mental health issues,” Windham said.

“Forgiveness is a blessing, and I forgive him,” Barker-Cummings said.

At the conclusion of Windham’s statement, Barker-Cummings nodded to Windham through tears and whispered thank you.

Windham now faces consecutive sentences of up to more than five years in prison under this plea.

Although much shorter than what he would have faced under the original charges, Barker-Cummings is content with the decision.

“We did Kevin justice,” Barker-Cummings said.

Remembering Kevin

“We called him our shooting star. He was so fast and bright,” Barker-Cummings said.

She said it’s been devastating to lose her son at such a young age but that this loss is far from meaningless.

“So many kids are struggling with different things,” she said.

Since Cummings’ death his story has been widely shared, shedding light on addiction in young people.

“If I had to lose Kevin, I had to make the best out of this loss,” Barker-Cummings said.

She carried three pictures into the courtroom Tuesday, showing him as a happy child with “light in his eyes.”

In his statement to the family, Windham described Cummings as “intelligent” and “outgoing.”

“He really could have been anything he wanted to be,” Barker-Cummings said.

“He had a really rich life,” Barker-Cummings said. “I just wish he could have lived the rest of it.”

Juvenile law

Windham and Cummings first met during a weekend in jail, when Cummings was 17 and Windham was 42. At the time, North Carolina law automatically tried and treated those 16 and older as adults in the criminal justice system.

Shortly after Cummings’ death, this law was changed, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be evaluated before being placed in either the juvenile or superior court systems.

Had Cummings not been placed with adults in the Orange County jail, he likely never would have met Windham, Barker-Cummings said.

Death by distribution

In addition to the change in juvenile law, Windham was also the first person in Orange County to be charged with death by distribution.

Signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2019 in response to growing opioid-related deaths, the new charge in North Carolina punishes people who sell drugs to buyers who fatally overdose on those drugs.

In such cases, prosecutors must prove:

The person’s death was caused by ingesting opium, cocaine or methamphetamine.

The defendant intentionally distributed the drugs.

The distribution was the cause of the death.

The defendant acted with a standard of malice.

Death by distribution is just one of several statewide efforts to combat the opioid crisis.

Addiction resources

When Barker-Cummings moved from New York City to Hillsborough she never suspected her son would develop substance use disorder.

“In some ways, I feel Kevin’s purpose was to blow the lid off things for so many people in his orbit,” she said.

As she soon learned, addiction among young people is more common than she realized.

“The pressure’s on parents to keep their kids safe,” she said.

“If you suspect something, don’t stay quiet,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to investigate.”

She encourages parents and loved ones to “be supportive” to ensure a child feels comfortable opening up about their struggles.

“Seek evidence-based programs,” she said.

She recommends looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or to Shatterproof, a national organization fighting the opioid crisis. Shatterproof offers a “quality treatment locator” designed to connect patients with effective, evidence-based care.

Local resources are available through the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services or Alliance for Action through Wake County. More resources are slated to become available throughout the Triangle and North Carolina under the National Opioid Settlement, The News & Observer reported.

Additionally, Orange County recently announced NarCan, a rapid overdose reversal medication, is now available 24 hours a day in a vending machine in the lobby of the Orange County Detention Center at 1200 U.S. 70 West in Hillsborough, the N&O previously reported.

Although Barker-Cummings feels her loss every day, she is confident her son’s story has saved lives.

“I wish I could have him back, but he’s doing good work,” she said.

The Orange Report

Calling Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough readers! We've launched The Orange Report, a free weekly digest of some of the top stories for and about Orange County published in The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. Get your newsletter delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday at 11 a.m. featuring links to stories by our local journalists. Sign up for our newsletter here. For even more Orange-focused news and conversation, join our Facebook group "Chapel Hill Carrboro Chat."