Though Amber Cummings pleaded guilty to shooting her husband, James Cummings, Justice Jeffrey Hjelm ruled Jan. 7 that her eight-year sentence would be fully suspended.

Cummings was charged with the Dec. 9, 2008, murder of her husband at their High Street residence in Belfast. The couple’s then-9-year-old daughter was at home at the time of the shooting. Cummings told police her husband had threatened to kill himself, her and their daughter during a planned terrorist attack on Washington, D.C.

A leaked FBI report later revealed that James Cummings had the ingredients and the instructions for making a dirty bomb. Throughout the police investigation, officers also discovered hundreds of images and videos containing child pornography in the Cummings’ home.

Amber Cummings has been free on $50,000 bail since turning herself in to the Waldo County Jail after a Waldo County Grand Jury indicted her on the murder charge last year.

“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Hjelm, who addressed a courtroom filled largely with Cummings’ relatives and supporters from the community, who donned stickers that read “Free Amber.” “The real sentence is eight years.”

After hearing nearly two hours of testimony from four mental health experts who have been treating Amber Cummings and her 10-year-old daughter, Hjelm declared that the woman was not a threat to public safety.

After the judge issued his order, the Waldo County Superior Courthouse filled with the sound of applause, and members of her family, who had come from California for the sentencing, wept and hugged and were heard telling Cummings, “We love you.”

Cummings entered her plea, also before Hjelm, in Knox County Superior Court in November. In the plea agreement, the state was recommending Cummings face an eight-year prison sentence, but the sentence included an additional recommendation that at least seven years of the prison term be suspended. The plea agreement also recommended that Cummings be subject to six years’ probation.

Upon leaving the courtroom with her many supporters, Cummings addressed the media, stating that her daughter had been made aware of her mother’s fate moments before.

“We called her from the courtroom, and she screamed ‘yay’,” said Cummings, who was hugging her cousin, Jenny Shattuck of California.

She urged members of the public who may be angry with her deceased husband to forgive him, noting he had a difficult childhood. She added that if people in the community know of a child who is living in a difficult situation, they should reach out and do all they can for that child. Cummings said her entire focus is now on her daughter, and that she will continue to work to make sure her child can move on after experiencing her own difficult life.

Cummings also said she was glad that one of the conditions of her probation was not to leave the state without permission from her probation officer.

“I was looking for an excuse [to stay],” she said, adding that she was grateful for the support that the community had given to her and her daughter in the last year.

In opening the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Leane Zainea said that while there were many factors favoring lessening the severity of the crime that the court could consider when determining Cummings’ sentence, no one has the right to take the law into their own hands.

“This is a crime of violence that is dangerous to human life,” she said. “… It is difficult to imagine a manslaughter that could be more violent than to shoot someone to death while they slept.”

In addition to the violent nature of the crime, Zainea said Cummings’ use of a firearm to kill her husband while her then-9-year-old daughter was present was a factor that pointed to extreme violence.

“Given those factors, and the very violent nature of the offense, it was her decision, her choice to end his life,” said Zainea.

In proposing the plea agreement, Zainea said the state had taken into account Cummings’ mental condition, as well as the fact that Cummings had no prior criminal record, and that she took responsibility for the crime. Zainea said the state had also considered the importance of the relationship Cummings has with her daughter.

All that being said, Zainea said the state’s position was that Cummings should serve some prison time.

“Such self-help measures, such as those engaged in by Ms. Cummings are not acceptable,” said Zainea, noting it is important to send that message to Cummings and to the community.

Throughout the two-hour hearing, mental health experts who had worked with either Cummings, her daughter, or both, testified on Cummings’ behalf. All of the experts stated in their reports that Cummings suffered from a series of mental issues because of the abuse she endured from her husband, including post traumatic stress disorder and shared psychotic disorder, a rare condition that occurs when a person begins to believe the delusions of someone they are close to.

In addition, the sentencing memorandum from Cummings’ defense attorney, Eric Morse, included a report from state forensic psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Wish, who conducted an independent examination of Cummings’ mental state in mid-2009.

During his deliberation, Hjelm noted that in the report, Wish stated that even months after James Cummings’ death, Amber Cummings still “clings to many of the beliefs she developed during her marriage to Mr. Cummings.” And as the reports from all four of the counselors stated, Hjelm noted, those beliefs included the ideas that the world was made for white men, and that women only existed to serve them.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Lesley Devoe, who specializes in the field of childhood trauma and domestic abuse, stated that in the 30 years she’s worked in her field, she had never seen a case as severe as Cummings’.

Devoe described the case as highly unusual, and painted a picture of a man who practiced “terrorism in the home, and who was planning terrorism in the community and the country.”

Devoe said on the day that James Cummings was killed, Amber Cummings was preparing to take her own life in her bedroom across the hall when she heard the familiar creaking of the floor that indicated her husband was waking up.

“She removed the gun from her mouth, ran in and shot Jim,” said Devoe, who added that James Cummings had one loaded gun beneath his pillow and another in his nightstand.

The High Street home where the Cummings family lived until James Cummings’ death, said Devoe, contained no evidence that a family lived there — it was devoid of family photographs, and instead prominently displayed Nazi memorabilia, including a sword that had flesh on it, and a walking stick that was decorated with swastikas and James Cummings’ own blood. The Cummingses had separate bedrooms, she said, with James Cummings’ room appearing spacious and comfortable, and he apparently had a closet filled with nice clothes. The bedrooms for Amber Cummings and her daughter were a stark contrast, she said, and Amber Cummings’ room included a closet with few clothes of her own.

“Amber and [her daughter’s] rooms were small cells,” said Devoe. “… Amber has just now begun to take up space in life.”

Morse added that James Cummings also had his own living room, which included nice furniture and a flat-screen television. In contrast, a small, dark room was reserved as the entertainment space for Amber and her daughter.

Morse also spoke of an occasion in 2001 when James Cummings forced Amber Cummings to get an abortion when she became pregnant because he was convinced the child would do him some kind of harm. Cummings complied, Morse said, because her husband threatened to, “cut the fetus out of her.”

Over the years, Morse said, James Cummings subjected his wife to marital rape, beatings and brainwashing. Morse said James Cummings would often force Amber Cummings to watch child pornography with him, and would also often express sexual interest in pre-pubescent girls.

“She was to be a soldier in his twisted plan, and to serve him sexually, and that was it,” said Morse, as Cummings wept softly in the courtroom.

Morse said he met Cummings just hours after the shooting, and encountered a woman whom he described as a “caged animal” who had just been let out. She had dark circles beneath her eyes, hid behind her hair, and said little to anyone.

Morse noted that Wish’s report described what Cummings endured in her 10-year marriage not as domestic abuse, but as torture.

Bangor psychologist John Lorenz said that Cummings not only feared her husband in life, but continued to fear him after his death.

“In her understanding of Mr. Cummings, and Mr. Cummings’ world, he was not only a strong person, he was super-human,” he said, adding that Amber Cummings would make statements to him suggesting James Cummings could reach from beyond the grave to exact revenge.

Joann Cook, who has spent 30 years as a counselor specializing in trauma treatment, said she thought she’d seen the worst as far as what one person could do to another, “and then I met [the daughter].”

Cook described Amber’s daughter as a “truly remarkable child” who is now attending public school for the first time this year.

Cook said she is a child who has made a lot of progress after a childhood of rarely being allowed outside of the house, to socialize with anyone outside of the immediate family or to have a feeling or thought that was not approved by her father.

“For [her], it was something akin to being a prisoner of war,” said Cook, whose voice broke occasionally during her testimony.

With her mother’s help over the last year, Cook said Amber’s daughter is now able to trust others, and express feelings.

“She’s in school full time, she’s learning and she has friends,” said Cook. “And more importantly, she has her mother.”

Cook said she feared separating the child from her mother would have a detrimental affect on the daughter’s progress. Cook said in the recent weeks she’s spent preparing the child for her mother’s possible absence, her daughter has displayed regressive behaviors like intense sadness and tearful outbursts.

“[Amber] has been her anchor of sanity,” said Cook.

In determining Cummings’ sentence, Hjelm said he found the treatment Cummings endured at the hands of her husband “shocking and unimaginable.”

Hjelm said the experts’ testimony and their corresponding reports showed that Cummings, due to the abuse from her husband, was “not able to recognize the path to freedom,” and felt that she could recognize no other choice but to kill her husband.

Hjelm noted a section of Wish’s report that explains why Cummings shot her husband twice: to make sure he was dead, and to make sure he was not suffering.

In making his final ruling, Hjelm said imposing a prison sentence in Cummings’ case would not benefit anyone — not the community, not Cummings, and least of all, not her daughter.

“She stands before the court as an offender who needs the time and the opportunity to heal,” he said.