Still, few expected her luck would hold when she went on trial for first-degree murder. Yet on May 13, after a jury of four men and eight women found her guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter—which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison—a circuit judge gave her just 60 days in jail plus a $2,500 fine. Even her lawyer Blair Howard, 56, who had defended Lorena Bob-bitt, called the outcome "unbelievable"—a sentiment shared by veteran Fairfax County, Va., prosecutor Robert Horan Jr., who had followed the trial. "Normally there would be a much more serious price to pay," says Horan. "You could get five years in Virginia for killing a horse."
Cummings, 35, who was supported in court by her twin sister, Diana, and their mother, Irma, could not contain her relief. "I'd like everyone to know how appreciative I am," she said, smiling publicly for the first time in weeks. "I feel so happy."
Judging by trial testimony, there had been little cause for joy in the weeks before the shooting of Villegas, 38. Although he and Cummings had clicked after meeting at a local polo club in 1995—with Villegas agreeing to compete on her private team and becoming a fixture at the $2.9 million estate she shared with Diana in Warrenton, Va.—the romance turned ugly. Three witnesses said they saw Villegas hit, punch and even try to choke Cummings.
Finally, on the morning of Sept. 7, Cummings told the court, Villegas attacked her with a knife in the kitchen of her mansion, slashing her forearm. "I felt, This is it,' " she said. " 'This man is going to kill me.' " When he released her, said Cummings, she took a 9-mm. pistol from a drawer and, hearing his chair scrape on the floor while her back was turned, swung around and fired four rounds "in a moment of desperation."
Fauquier County prosecutor Kevin Casey, 37, contended that Cummings had ambushed Villegas and cut her own arm before calling 911. The jury didn't buy it. "One thing we all agreed on," says one juror, "was that we couldn't stand Roberto after all he had done to Susan."
Cummings is likely to find less sympathy among former polo pals. "I view her as having no conscience," says local polo team owner Richard Vargé. "Roberto was a gentle man, and her defense depicted him as the devil." And if Cummings should try returning to the circuit? "She would not be welcome," says Peter Arundel, founder of the Great Meadow Polo Club, where she and Villegas played. "We are outraged and saddened."
For Cummings the trauma of the trial was heightened by the April 29 death, in his Monaco home, of her father, arms baron Sam Cummings, 71, after a series of strokes. She was allowed to attend his memorial service in Washington on May 16 before reporting to Fauquier County's minimum security detention center. As one of only three women there, she has a dormitory to herself and, with good behavior, could be out in 42 days. "Just enough time to catch up on her reading," notes Arundel. "Susan is a very lucky woman."
Vicky Moon in Warrenton and Rose-Ellen O'Connor in Washington