A woman once convicted of killing her Marine husband with arsenic to pay for breast implants was cleared Thursday after new tests showed no traces of poison.
Prosecutors who were preparing for Cynthia Sommer's second trial found that previously untested samples of Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer's tissue showed no arsenic. Earlier tests of his liver, presented at the woman's first trial, found levels 1,020 times above normal.
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 might 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."
Freed after more than two years
Sommer was released from jail Thursday night after two years and four months' incarceration in suburban Santee. She smiled as she walked toward her attorney's Jaguar.
"Hi, honey. I love you," she told her daughter on her cell phone. "I can't wait to see you. I miss you."
Sommer was granted a new trial after her conviction in January 2007 on first-degree murder. A judge ruled in November that she had received ineffective representation from her former 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.
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.
‘It goes to show you ... ’
Her former attorney, Robert Udell, said he "never expected this ending."
"Just like I said from day one, it made no sense," Udell said. "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 partying immediately after her husband's death.
The former attorney has admitted to tactical errors, including failing to call witnesses to adequately rebut prosecutors' theories about the source of the arsenic.
Sommer had faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if the judge had denied a retrial.
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. The couple married in 1999.
Sommer's co-workers testified during the trial that the widow didn't grieve quietly in the weeks after the death. 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 better 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, who moved to Florida after the death, 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.