Associated Press


Judge dismisses charges against Marine widow
By ALLISON HOFFMAN Associated Press Writer

04/17/2008

SAN DIEGO—A judge dismissed charges Thursday against a woman accused of killing her Marine husband with arsenic to pay for breast implants after new tests showed no traces of poison.

Prosecutors who were preparing for a second trial of Cynthia Sommer found that previously untested samples of Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer's tissue showed no arsenic.

Earlier tests of his liver, presented at Sommer's first trial, found levels of arsenic 1,020 times above normal.
Cynthia Sommer
Cynthia Sommer
A recently retained government expert speculated that the earlier samples were contaminated, prosecutors wrote in a motion filed in San Diego Superior Court. The expert said he found the initial results "very puzzling" and "physiologically improbable."

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told reporters there was no proof of contamination but offered no other explanation. She said she didn't know how the tissue may have been contaminated.

"We had an expert who said it was arsenic and no reason to doubt that evidence," Dumanis said. "The bottom line was, 'Was there arsenic in Mr. Sommer causing his death?' Our results showed that there was."

Sommer was released from jail Thursday night after two years and four months in the Las Colinas Detention Facility in suburban Santee.

"I'm in shock," she said. "I haven't even processed being outside yet, and wearing normal clothes."

She was all smiles as she walked toward her attorney's Jaguar.

"Hi, honey. I  love you," she told one of her four children on her cell phone. "I can't wait to see you. I miss you."
Sommer told reporters outside the jail that she learned Thursday afternoon that the tests showed no proof of poisoning. She said the criminal justice system failed her and that the district attorney made a "mistake."

She declined to say if she would pursue civil charges.

"I knew all along that the testing was wrong and I was just waiting for that to come out. That's what I said since the day I was arrested," she said.

Her family planned to fly to San Diego from their new home in Florida to see her.

Sommer was granted a new trial after her conviction in January 2007 of first-degree murder with special circumstances of murder by poison and for financial gain, charges that carried an automatic life sentence without possibility of parole. A judge ruled in November that she had received ineffective representation from her former defense attorney.

At her trial, prosecutors argued that Sommer used her husband's life insurance to pay for breast implants and pursue a more luxurious lifestyle. With no proof that Sommer was the source of the arsenic detected in her husband's liver, Deputy District Attorney Laura Gunn relied heavily on circumstantial evidence of Sommer's financial debt and later spending sprees to show that she had a motive to kill her 23-year-old husband.

Expert witnesses called by the defense raised questions about why arsenic wasn't detected in similarly large concentrations in the Marine's other tissues.

Her attorney, Allen Bloom, said he felt the evidence was contaminated. "We've said that all along," he told reporters outside the courthouse.

Bloom accused the district attorney of "gross negligence."

"The next time she decides to charge someone with murder in the first degree maybe she should call someone first," Bloom said. "They labeled Cindy with a big red 'S' on her back because she didn't grieve the way they wanted her to."

Her former attorney, Robert Udell, said he "never expected this ending."

"Just like I said from day one, it made no sense," said Udell. "It goes to show you there are innocent people in prison."

Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh ruled last year that Udell erred by allowing prosecutors to introduce evidence about Sommer's wild partying immediately after her husband's death.

The former attorney has admitted that he committed tactical errors, including failing to call witnesses to adequately refute prosecutors' theories about the source of the supposed arsenic.

Todd Sommer, 23, was in top condition when he collapsed and died Feb. 18, 2002, at the couple's home on the Marine Corps' Miramar base in San Diego.

He had spiked a 103-degree fever and visited an urgent care clinic complaining of gastrointestinal pain days earlier, but his widow testified that he was well enough that weekend to drink beer during a family trip to an amusement park.

His death was initially ruled a heart attack.

Sommer's co-workers testified during the trial that the widow didn't grieve quietly in the weeks after the death. The couple married in 1999.

Rather than going into seclusion, she got her breasts enlarged and, witnesses said, joined wet T-shirt contests at nightclubs and had casual sex with other military men.

Prosecutors said Sommer wanted a more luxurious lifestyle than she could afford on the $1,700 monthly salary her husband brought home and saw the $250,000 military life insurance policy as a way to "set herself free."

Sommer cried on the stand at her trial, dabbing her eyes as she recounted her husband's last moments. She said during cross-examination that she hadn't been able to envision a future with him.

———

Associated Press Writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.


Recent Cases
Junk Science

Truth in Justice