Having been exonerated of charges she poisoned her Marine husband to death, Cynthia Sommer is out of prison and renewing bonds with her children. But in the back of her mind, Sommer cannot help but wonder how many other wrongly convicted people languish in America’s crowded prisons.
“There are so many people who this happens to, and that’s scary,” Sommer told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Tuesday. “That’s a scary thing, that people sit in jail and in prison that have been wrongfully accused, wrongfully charged, wrongfully convicted.”
Sommer, 34, was first accused of poisoning her Marine husband, Sgt. Todd Sommer, with arsenic in order to cash in on his $250,000 life insurance policy.
After jurors heard the scientific evidence and stories about her frolicking with her husband’s Marine buddies on the night of his funeral, Sommer was convicted of first-degree murder last year and sentenced to life in prison.
But last Thursday, after Sommer had served 876 days, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis unexpectedly moved to dismiss the murder charges.
Sommer was suddenly a free woman.
“I’m overwhelmed with emotion,” Sommer said. “I can’t describe being in jail one day, one minute actually, and being out the next.”
The motion to vacate the conviction, Dumanis said, was prompted by overlooked evidence and additional scientific analysis that challenged the validity of the prosecution’s original case that Sommer used arsenic to kill her husband.
After dismissing the charges, Dumanis declared: “Justice has been done.”
But Sommer’s attorney is seeing it quite differently.
“Justice was done,” Allen Bloom said. “But not because of the prosecution, but despite of it.”
A widow’s story
It was Feb. 18, 2002, when Todd Sommer, 23, collapsed at the couple’s home at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Doctors’ original determination of death was natural causes, but tissue tests came back with levels of arsenic in Todd Sommer’s kidneys and liver.
During the trial, prosecutors presented motive by citing Cynthia Sommer’s behavior following his death. They said she used insurance money for breast augmentation surgery and presented evidence of her participation in wet T-shirt contests and intimate relations with some of Todd Sommer’s fellow Marines.
In an NBC News report aired during her prison stay, Sommer explained her conduct by saying, “I wanted my husband back and I missed him and I didn’t have him and the closest thing I could have were his friends.”
With Lauer on Tuesday, Sommer said “everybody grieves differently” and that the prosecutor “exaggerated” some of her behavior.
“The things that she said that happened didn’t happen the way,” she said.
Bloom contends the case should have been focused solely on scientific evidence from the start.
Last December, a judge granted Sommer’s request for a new trial based on the contention that her former attorney, Robert Udell, made several legal mistakes that might have prejudiced jurors
According to court documents, prosecutors learned last month that some of Todd Sommer’s untested tissue samples had been stored at San Diego Naval Medical Center. They were tested this month in Quebec and no arsenic was found and, as a result, contamination in previous tissue samples was possible.
Bloom, who has steadfastly affirmed that Todd Sommer died from natural causes, was outraged that these tissue samples went untested for such a long time.
“This isn’t a new tissue sample,” he said. “It’s been sitting in a laboratory. This tissue has been there for six years. Four-and-a-half years ago, when the prosecution was on this case, it was available to them. They just turned their back on it and didn’t look at it.
“They only did it because a few weeks ago we demanded that they finally give us everything out of there and what happens when we finally get over there and get to the box where these tissues are, which were enormous,” the lawyer said.
Dumanis has said her office acted appropriately based on the available evidence when prosecutors charged Cynthia Sommer with murder in March 2006.
Righting the wrongs
Cynthia Sommer, who had several organized groups fighting for her freedom during her prison stay, suggested to Lauer that she will offer support for people she feels have been wrongly convicted.
“I think the lesson is that the judicial system is flawed,” said Sommer, who has four children. “I’ve seen more than just myself that this has happened to. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to be in the spotlight and to be able to have a voice.”
Bloom told Lauer he and his client were not thinking about a lawsuit — at least for the moment.
“What this should end up as is somebody realizing in this case, as it relates to Cindy, the system broke,” Bloom said. “What should really end up in this case is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”