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Cynthia SOMMER





Classification: Justice miscarriage
Characteristics: Convicted of murdering her husband with arsenic so she could cash in on his $250,000 life insurance policy, some of which she used to have her breasts enlarged
Number of victims: 0
Date of murder: February 18, 2002
Date of arrest: November 30, 2005
Date of birth: 1974
Victim profile: Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer, 23 (her husband)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Status: Convicted of first-degree murder with the “special circumstances” of murder by poison and murder for financial gain in January 30, 2007. Conviction overturned on November 30, 2007. Charges dismisses in April 2008. Released on April 17, 2008

photo gallery


Cynthia Sommer

By Stephanie Denzel

In February 2002, 23-year-old Todd Sommer, a marine with no previous health problems, fell ill in San Diego, California, and died a few days later. The death certificate stated the cause of death as a heart attack. In 2003, the military tested some of Sommer’s tissue preserved from the autopsy and found fatal levels of arsenic in his body – over 1,000 times the normal level in his liver, and over 250 times the normal level in his kidneys. Investigators believed that Cynthia Sommer, Todd’s wife, had poisoned him in order to collect more than $250,000 in insurance benefits and $1,900 per month in survivor benefits.

Cynthia Sommer was arrested in Florida in November 2005 and extradited to California in 2006. At trial, the defense presented experts who testified that the lab results were suspect, and that the samples were likely contaminated. The judge had ruled that the prosecution could not present evidence of Cynthia’s behavior after Todd’s death, but the defense counsel raised the issue when he introduced evidence presenting Cynthia Sommer as a grieving widow. In rebuttal, prosecutors pointed out that in the weeks following Todd’s death, Cynthia got breast implants, had sex with several different partners, threw parties, and moved to Florida with a new boyfriend. According to the prosecution, Sommer had also made multiple inquiries about money in the hours immediately following her husband’s death.

In January 2007, a jury convicted Sommer of first-degree murder with the “special circumstances” of murder by poison and murder for financial gain, which made her eligible for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

After Sommer’s conviction, she retained a new attorney, who filed a motion for a new trial and pursued the issue of the unreliability of the lab results. In November 2007, before Sommer was sentenced, the same judge who presided over her trial vacated Cynthia’s conviction and granted her a new trial, because by “opening the door” to evidence of her behavior following her husband’s death, her defense attorney had deprived her of a fair trial. Retrial was set for May 2008.

Sommer’s attorney repeatedly requested that the prosecution produce the other tissues preserved from Todd’s autopsy, but prosecutors insisted that no such evidence existed. In March 2008, however, after the defense made a formal discovery demand, the tissue samples were found. The prosecutor later stated that her office had forgotten about the samples. Testing on the newly found materials, including samples from Todd’s liver and kidneys, were negative for arsenic. In April 2008, based on these new tests, the prosecution asked the court to dismiss the charges against Sommer and she was released. Sommer filed a $20 million lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to wrongfully prosecute her. As of August 2011, the case was still pending.


Release of widow ends bizarre case

Cynthia Sommer may sue over prosecution in the death of her Marine husband. She served 2 1/2 years

By Tony Perry - Los Angeles Times

April 19, 2008

SAN DIEGO — After 876 days in jail for a murder that prosecutors now say did not happen, Cynthia Sommer knew what she wanted: a fancy coffee drink at Starbucks, followed by a coconut-shrimp dinner at Bully's restaurant.

In the next few days, Sommer, 34, said at a Friday news conference, she plans to go shopping and spend time with her children. Her 16-year-old daughter was to reunite with her Friday night. She plans to travel to Michigan to see her three sons -- ages 8, 12 and 13.

Later, she said, she will decide how to pay her legal bills and whether to sue the district attorney for prosecuting her and overlooking evidence that ultimately cleared her of poisoning her Marine husband.

On Thursday, San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis moved to dismiss murder charges against Sommer, telling reporters that overlooked evidence and new scientific scrutiny had poked holes in the prosecution's assertion that she used arsenic to kill Sgt. Todd Sommer.

It was a startling conclusion to a murder prosecution built on a tabloid-style scenario of a scheming wife poisoning her younger husband, watching as he died and then -- soon after -- getting a $5,400 breast augmentation, partying and having sex with several partners.

Within hours of Dumanis' announcement, Sommer was free. "I never lost any hope, faith or anything," she said Friday. "You can never give up if you're innocent."

In announcing the dismissal of the charges Thursday, Dumanis said, "Justice has been done."

Sommer and her attorney, Allen Bloom, disagreed. "I don't think Bonnie Dumanis would agree if she was in jail wrongfully accused of murdering her husband," Sommer said.

In November a jury convicted Sommer of first-degree murder, but the trial judge overturned the verdict, ruling that prosecutors' description of her "lifestyle" was so inflammatory that it deprived Sommer of a fair trial.

She had been convicted of murder with special circumstances -- murder for hire and murder by poison -- that carried a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole. Todd Sommer, 23, was stationed at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and appeared to be in excellent health when he fell ill and died within days in 2002. Married in 1999, the couple had a son. Cynthia Sommer had three children by a previous marriage.

When she was arrested in 2005, she had moved to Florida.

Prosecutors had said Sommer killed her husband to collect on his $250,000 life insurance policy and begin a new, fun-filled life. She had remained in jail while prosecutors prepared for a second trial.

In response to a discovery motion by Bloom, Sommer's new defense attorney, prosecutors gathered all the tissue samples that had been taken from her husband's body, including some that were not tested before the first trial.

When they had the new samples tested, experts could not find arsenic -- creating what Dumanis called reasonable doubt that Todd Sommer had died of arsenic poisoning. An expert newly hired by the prosecution also suggested that earlier samples in which arsenic was found had been contaminated.

Bloom said it should not have taken a defense motion to make prosecutors gather samples that had remained at the San Diego Naval Medical Center since Todd Sommer's death.

"It's scary how [prosecutors] are dealing with this now," Bloom said. "They're taking credit for doing the right thing. They didn't do the right thing! Justice was done, but not because of the prosecution in this case but despite the prosecution."

During the trial, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh told prosecutors he would not allow evidence about Sommer's behavior after her husband's death .

But Deddeh relented when defense attorney Robert Udell opened the door by introducing his own evidence of Sommer as a grieving widow.

After the conviction, Deddeh ruled that her attorney's error had deprived Sommer of a fair trial.

The evidence about her breasts, drinking and sexual activity "became like an overwhelming cloud that covered everything," said Bloom, one of San Diego's most prominent defense attorneys.

Even as both sides prepared for a second trial, prosecution investigators were again asking Sommer's friends questions about her behavior after her husband's death, Bloom said.

The lawyer said he was prepared to call experts who would suggest that Todd Sommer died of a heart ailment or reaction to weight-control pills or an anti-diarrhea prescription medication.

Asked if she was angry at prosecutors, Sommer said, "Wouldn't you be?"


Woman cleared in killing questions prosecutors

She spent two years in prison for husband's alleged arsenic death

Associated Press

April 18, 2008

SAN DIEGO — A woman who spent more than two years in jail before she was cleared of killing her Marine husband with arsenic questioned Friday how prosecutors could sleep at night, now knowing that new tests showed no traces of poison.

Cynthia Sommer, 34, said she barely slept herself on her first night of freedom after a San Diego Superior Court judge Thursday dismissed charges that she poisoned her husband in 2002.

She was convicted of first-degree murder in January 2007 after initial tests of Sgt. Todd Sommer’s liver showed levels of arsenic 1,020 times above normal.

But prosecutors found no traces of poison in previously untested tissue as they prepared for a second trial. A judge had ordered a new trial in November after finding she had 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.

With no proof that Sommer was the source of the arsenic detected in her husband’s liver, the government 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.

'I did what I did'

Sommer criticized prosecutors for questioning her behavior after her husband’s death, saying, “I did what I did.”

She was set free within hours of the judge’s ruling and emerged from the Las Colinas Detention Facility in suburban Santee.

“The only question I have for (prosecutors) is how they sleep at night?” Sommer said.

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.”

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis defended her handling of the case Friday, saying that justice was served and that her office acted appropriately.

Earlier samples contaminated?

“We did what we were supposed to do,” Dumanis told KFMB-TV. “We’re all looking backwards now and second-guessing everything.”

A recently retained government expert speculated that the earlier samples were contaminated, prosecutors wrote in a motion filed in court. The expert said he found the initial results “very puzzling” and “physiologically improbable.”

Todd Sommer was in top physical condition when he collapsed and died Feb. 18, 2002, at the couple’s home on the Marine Corps’ Miramar base in San Diego. His death was initially ruled a heart attack.

Dumanis said Thursday 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 said she wasn’t sure what she would do now that she was out of jail. She was looking forward to seeing her four children, ages 8 to 16.

“It’s already been an incredible day. I can’t wait to finish it,” she said.


Wife convicted of poisoning marine husband with arsenic for life insurance

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

SAN DIEGO —  A woman was convicted Tuesday of murdering her Marine husband with arsenic so she could cash in on his $250,000 life insurance policy, some of which she used to have her breasts enlarged.

Prosecutors argued that Cynthia Sommer, 33, wanted a more luxurious lifestyle than she could afford on her 23-year-old husband's $1,700 monthly salary and saw his military life insurance policy as a way to "set herself free."

In addition to the breast enlargement surgery, Sommer's friends and co-workers testified, she threw wild parties and had casual sex with multiple partners in the weeks after her husband's death and the payment of the insurance policy.

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

His death was initially ruled a heart attack. Tests of his liver later found levels of arsenic 1,020 times above normal.

Cynthia Sommer, who was arrested in December 2005, swallowed and stared as the verdict was read, while her mother burst into tears. She faces an automatic life sentence. Formal sentencing was set for March 23.

"I'm deeply disappointed," defense attorney Robert Udell said after the verdict. "I don't believe Cindy killed Todd."

With no direct evidence that Sommer was the source of the arsenic, Deputy District Attorney Laura Gunn relied heavily on circumstantial evidence of Sommer's debts to show that she had a motive to kill her husband.

Gunn asserted that the defendant was the only person with the motive and access to poison the Marine.

The Marine's relatives testified that she objected when they asked her to put her husband's $250,000 death benefit in trust for herself, their baby and her three children from a previous marriage. However, she later put a little more than half of the benefit into a trust.

She is now engaged to a former Marine she met two months after her husband's death. She was extradited to California last March from her new home in West Palm Beach, Fla.


Marine widow Cynthia Sommer found guilty of poisoning husband for money

A San Diego jury took nearly 12 hours of deliberations to find Cynthia Sommer guilty of murder for fatally poisoning her 23-year-old Marine husband for financial gain

SAN DIEGO — Jurors handed down a guilty verdict Tuesday to a woman accused of poisoning her Marine husband with arsenic to obtain $250,000 in veteran's benefits and pay for breast implant surgery.

Cynthia Sommer, a 33-year-old mother of four, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole for the 2002 poisoning murder of her husband, Sgt. Todd Sommer.

"I'm so glad that Todd Sommer's family has justice finally for the death of their son," said Deputy District Attorney Laura Gunn.

Defense attorney Robert Udell said he was "absolutely stunned" by the verdict.

"[Sommer] is obviously, clearly disappointed," Udell said. "She said to me, 'What am I going to do now?'"

The panel of seven women and five men deliberated for about 12 hours over three days before finding Sommer guilty of first-degree murder and the special allegations of administering poison and murder for the purpose of financial gain.

Sommer sat quietly, holding the hand of a female defense investigator as she waited for the verdict. She showed no emotion when the guilty verdicts were read. After the jury was excused, she put her hand to her forehead and slowly shook her head — but did not cry.

She will be sentenced on March 23.

Sommer's family and friends held hands across their laps in the back row of the courtroom. Her teenage daughter and her mother sobbed quietly as the verdict was read, and left quickly.

"I'm deeply disappointed," defense attorney Udell said. "I don't believe Cyndi killed Todd. I never did."

Todd Sommer, a healthy young Marine, died suddenly on Feb. 18, 2002, in the home he shared with his wife, their infant son, and Cynthia Sommer's three children from a previous marriage.

His unexpected death was initially ruled cardiac arrhythmia with unknown etiology. His wife donated his tissues and organs to research and his body was cremated.

But more than a year later, scientists found elevated levels of arsenic in Todd Sommer's tissues: more than 1,000 times the normal level in his liver and 230 times the acceptable level in his kidneys.

Cynthia Sommer was arrested and charged with his murder in November 2005.

Prosecutors admitted they had no evidence — no purchasing records, electronic paper trail or any direct link to prove that Sommer had access to the arsenic that killed her husband. Instead, they focused on the defendant's seeming inability to live within her means and her promiscuous behavior after her husband's death.

Witnesses testified that Sommer had breast implant surgery two months after Todd died, partied in Tijuana with girlfriends and entered wet T-shirt and thong contests.

"In the end," prosecutor Gunn said, "we had strong evidence and we're happy with the result."

Gunn likened the case to a jigsaw puzzle with a 1,000 pieces. Calling the defendant's former lovers to the stand to describe her abundant sex life, Gunn said, was another piece of the puzzle that the jury needed — evidence of her inappropriate grieving — to help them reach a guilty verdict.

During the month-long trial, Gunn argued that Sommer was the only one close enough to the Marine who could have dosed him with the lethal poison. Prosecutors believed she gave him one massive dose about nine days before he collapsed.

But expert witnesses on both sides testified that they initially struggled with the inconsistencies in the arsenic test results. The significantly high levels in his liver and kidney, some said, should have resulted in elevated levels in his blood, urine, brain and other organs.

The defense's arsenic expert told jurors that it was "inconceivable" that Todd Sommer could have died from arsenic poisoning as his symptoms and pathology lacked telltale signs — including incapacitating illness and visible organ damage.

"We knew going in this was a circumstantial case," Gunn said at a press conference after the verdict. "But we had very high levels of arsenic in a very healthy young man."

Jurors spoke with both attorneys after the verdict but refused to talk to the press.

"They didn't spend a lot of time worrying about whether the arsenic was there or not there," Gunn said of the attorneys' short meeting with jurors after the verdict. "They accepted pretty early on that it was there, and once you do that — there's nobody else."

Defense attorney Udell speculated that jurors appeared to have reached a verdict based on "inferences" of guilt rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

"We'll see what the appeals court says," Udell said.

Sommer's three youngest children, including Christian, the son she shared with Todd Sommer, currently live with the defendant's brother in Michigan. Udell said it was likely they would continue to be raised by their uncle and his family.


Wife Accused Of Poisoning Marine Husband In Court

Sommer Suspected Of Using Life Insurance Money To Pay For Breast Implants

July 10, 2006

A woman accused of poisoning her Marine husband so she could collect $250,000 in life insurance proceeds spent money freely soon after his death, according to court testimony Monday.

Cynthia Sommer, 32, is charged with murder and special circumstance allegations of murder by poison and murder for financial gain in the Feb. 18, 2002, death of Sgt. Todd Sommer.

A decision is pending on whether the defendant will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole if convicted.

Prosecutors theorize that the defendant used the proceeds from her husband's insurance policy to have her breasts enhanced two months after he died.

Forensic accountant April Riel, testifying at Sommer's preliminary hearing, said a $29,000 trust fund left for the defendant's husband by his father was depleted by Dec. 31, 2002.

Four days after the victim's death, the defendant received a $6,000 death gratuity payment from the U.S. government, Riel testified.

Sommer -- added as a beneficiary in July 2001 -- received $250,587 in life insurance proceeds one month after her husband died, Riel testified.

With the life insurance money, Cynthia Sommer paid more than $5,000 for plastic surgery, set up $122,000 worth of trust accounts for her four children, paid off a $12,916 credit card bill, paid off a minivan and made other miscellaneous purchases, Riel testified.

Upon questioning by defense attorney Robert Udell, Riel said she didn't know exactly how some of the money was spent.

Outside court, Udell said the Sommers didn't ask their families for money.

"They tried to make it on their own," he told reporters.

Udell said his client has never had any contact with arsenic and doubted if prosecutors could prove that the victim died from arsenic poisoning.

Udell said Cynthia Sommer actually lost money and didn't benefit from her husband's death.

The attorney also maintained that Todd Sommer knew about his wife's plans to get breast implants and was happy about it.

"She didn't kill him so she could get her breasts enhanced," Udell said. "They were definitely spending more money than they had. She's trying to make herself feel better."

A review of the couple's financial records showed they had been running an $867 monthly deficit in the months leading up to the victim's death, said Rob Terwilliger, a special agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

In July 2001, Cynthia Sommer had been denied financial relief from the military, which advised her to change her spending habits and live within the family's means, Terwilliger said.

He testified that it was initially believed the 23-year-old victim died from cardiac arythmia.

A year later, when a heavy metals test revealed high levels of arsenic in the victim's system, Cynthia Sommer became the target of a murder investigation, Terwilliger testified.

Two days after her husband's death, Sommer told NCIS investigators that he went to the doctor for stomach cramping on Feb. 8, 2002. She said her husband believed some egg rolls he ate made him sick, Terwilliger testified.

That same day, the defendant had an initial consultation for her breast augmentation, Terwilliger said.

After her spouse's death, the defendant also made purchases on an erotic adult dating service Web site for singles, the special agent testified.

Cynthia Sommer moved to Florida from San Diego in 2002 with a new boyfriend, an ex-Marine, within weeks of the autopsy on her husband's body. She was extradited from West Palm Beach, Fla. to San Diego in March.

The preliminary hearing before Judge Peter Deddeh is expected to last at least two days, at which time he will determine if there is enough evidence to hold Sommer for trial.



An Invisible Enemy

New Developments In The Case Of A Young Marine Who Died Suddenly - Was It Natural Causes Or Poison?

This story previously aired on Feb. 7, 2009. It was updated on June 27.

It was February 2002 when Cynthia Sommer, her husband, Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer, and their four children were coming home from a family weekend at an amusement park.

But as Richard Schlesinger reports, no one could have predicted the rollercoaster ride was just beginning.

"Came back home on Sunday, got the kids to bed. And he said that his heart felt like it had fluttered," Cynthia recalls. "I said 'Should we go to the hospital?' He said 'No, I'm fine. I'm just gonna go to bed.'"

Hours later, Cynthia made the panicked 911 call.

When Todd was pronounced dead a couple of hours later at the hospital, doctors said his heart had given out.

"They explained it the same as - you hear of kids playing baseball and just falling over, that there's no symptoms, there's no warning sign, there's nothing,'" Cynthia remembers.

But there was something: Todd had started feeling sick 10 days before he died. His symptoms started on Friday, Feb. 8.

"Saturday, he started vomiting - had diarrhea, nausea, some stomach cramping. It sounded like food poisoning."

On Sunday, Todd went to the Marine base clinic. A doctor thought it might be food poisoning and told him to wait it out. When his symptoms got worse, Cynthia turned to her mother for advice.

"The conversation would be, 'Mom, Todd's fever is up to 102. What should I do?' And, 'I just can't stop him from throwing up,' and, 'What else can I give him?'" Jan Lippert remembers. "I'd tell her the usual mother's remedies. And nothing seemed to help."

Todd went back to the doctor two days later. Cynthia says they gave Todd IV fluids and prescription medications.

And by that Saturday, Feb. 16, he seemed to be finally getting better. Todd felt well enough to go on that family outing to the amusement park.

But 48 hours later, he was dead. The official cause of death: cardiac arrhythmia.

Cynthia's mother rushed to be by her daughter's side. "It was a scene that I will never in my entire life ever forget… She was upstairs in their bed and she had one of Todd's shirts," Jan recalls. "She was just clinging, just clinging onto his shirt, and saying how it smelled like Todd and this is all she had left of him, that he was gone."

Todd and Cynthia had met just three years before Todd died. He was 19 and Cynthia, a divorced mother of three, was 25.

"I finally found someone that wanted to be a friend," Cynthia says. "I found someone that I could -- wanted to share my life with."

Within six months, Todd and Cynthia were married and living in San Diego where Todd was stationed. And before long, the newlyweds added another child to the family.

"We were a great family. And the kids loved him. I loved him," Cynthia says. "We did family things all the time."

But it all ended in an instant when Todd died. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) opened a routine investigation into Todd Sommer's death. As the investigation began, NCIS agents found nothing suspicious.

Lippert says her daughter began to face life as a widow. "She wanted to go on and make the most of her life and do it as best as she could."

It didn't take long. Cynthia found a new boyfriend and moved to Florida with her four children. Officially, there was no mystery about how Todd had died. The death certificate said natural causes. But one investigator couldn't shake a bad feeling.

NCIS Special Agent Mark Ridley was in charge of what the service calls a death review panel. It's the way the NCIS makes sure that all leads are pursued in military deaths, especially when someone, like Todd, dies unexpectedly.

"There were some odd things goin' on with the investigation that I thought needed additional work," he says. "They were lookin' at the case as being a natural death from the beginning."

Ridley felt the autopsy had overlooked important clues -- those symptoms Todd was suffering in the days before he died. "When you look through the medical record it showed that he had vomited several times, maybe 12 to 15 times in the space of a short period of time," he says.

Ridley thought those symptoms and Todd's sudden death were related. And it all started sounding familiar. The special agent had heard about a similar case in North Carolina and in that case the victims had been poisoned.

"It just so happens that Todd Sommer was exhibiting some of the same things that were found in some of the victims associated with the case," he says. "It resonated with me and when I read that case file it just made me a little bit uncomfortable, based on the symptoms."

Ridley was not ready to close this case. He ordered a rare heavy metals test be performed on Todd's tissue samples, which had been removed during the autopsy.

Meanwhile, NCIS Special Agent Rob Terwilliger started looking into Sommer's personal life." Going from the day Todd Sommer died and looking at every report, every note, every scrap of paper that was in the case file."

Terwilliger dug deeply into Todd's relationship with his friends, his family, and his outwardly grieving widow. "More and more information came out indicating that his relationship with his wife was not what it seemed."

The picture the NCIS was painting of Cynthia Sommer was less than flattering.

"Cindy was more of a party girl, was having financial difficulties when Todd was away on deployment," Terwilliger adds.

The more Terwilliger studied the Sommer family finances, the worse it looked for Cynthia. He quickly discovered she was spending more money than they had -- but it was more what she was looking for. The same day Todd got sick, Cynthia apparently met with a surgeon, inquiring about breast implants.

At the time, the Terwilliger says the couple had about $150 in their bank account. The breast implants would cost nearly $6,000, and would be a huge financial strain on the family.

Cynthia says Todd wanted her to have the operation and has a note on a Valentine's Day card from him that she says proves that. In 2006, she told 48 Hours that she went ahead with the surgery just two months after Todd died.

"After he died, I just… I wanted to escape everything… I know if he were alive and he had that much money, he would have wanted me to do it."

Nearly two and half years after Todd's death, the results of the tests on his tissue samples came back. They showed Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer had been poisoned with a lethal dose of arsenic. But was it murder?

"We needed to make sure that we had all the answers instead of writing this investigation off," says NCIS Special Agent Mark Ridley. "Twenty-three-year-old young men don't just die."

And it looked like Ridley was dead right.

When the lab tests came back, they showed startling high levels of arsenic in Todd Sommer's liver and kidneys. The levels were high enough to kill anyone, even an apparently healthy 23-year-old Marine.

"The investigation started at that point from being a natural death to really being a homicide," says Ridley.

The NCIS could find no innocent explanation for the high levels of arsenic. Investigators concluded it had to be murder and Todd's wife, Cynthia, had to be the murderess.

In November 2005, three-and-a-half years after Todd died, Cynthia Sommer was arrested and charged with first-degree murder by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

"Our ethical duty is to Todd Sommer. If he is killed by arsenic poisoning and if we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt to file that case," says Dumanis. "And that's what we did."

But proving Cynthia Sommer murdered her husband with arsenic will be difficult.

Toxicologist Dr. Lee Cantrell runs a poison information hotline in San Diego. He's spent a lot of time studying the use of arsenic as a murder weapon.

"Arsenic is odorless and tasteless. So there's no way that you would know that your food was contaminated," he explains. "Arsenic is an element, probably the most widely used poison of choice with respect to murder."

Over the centuries, arsenic was used to settle scores of power struggles. It has become known both as the king of poisons for the power it has and the Poison of Kings for the power some of its victims had. Many historians believe Napoleon was killed by arsenic.

A dose of arsenic smaller than a penny is enough to kill. A special test is required to detect arsenic in the body -- a test that was not performed during Todd Sommer's autopsy.

Dr. Cantrell says the symptoms of an acute poisoning show up very quickly. "I would expect within a relatively short period, minutes to an hour or so, that you would start to develop severe gastrointestinal distress."

Todd Sommer had those symptoms in the days before he died.

"Arsenic impairs the body's ability to produce energy," Dr. Cantrell explains. "You can ultimately develop seizures, loss of consciousness and death."

And since Todd's symptoms first began very late one night, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis believed the only person who could have poisoned him was only person who was with him at the time: his wife, Cynthia. "She had opportunity and she had the motive and we had the arsenic poisoning."

"What struck you is that she looked like she had a motive," says 48 Hours correspondent Richard Schlesinger.

"There was indication that she was living above her means. That she had financial problems herself and then there was $250,000 worth of insurance that she inquired into immediately," Dumanis says.

The $250,000 was from Todd's military life insurance and Cynthia began trying to collect it within days of his death.

Jan Lippert says the idea that her daughter poisoned Todd is ludicrous.

"There is no way in this world that Cindy could have possibly done this. It's absolutely impossible," she says. "She doesn't even know what arsenic is. When this happened she said 'What does it even look like?' I said, 'I wouldn't have any idea. I don't even know where you get it.' She said, 'I don't know where you get it from either.'"

Terwilliger was wondering himself where Cynthia could have gotten it. But he says it didn't take him long to discover that arsenic, unfortunately, is easy to purchase on the Internet and in supply stores.

NCIS Special Agent Rob Terwilliger was wondering himself where Cynthia could have gotten it and quickly discovered arsenic is easy to find. He went online and found dozen of laboratories and supply stores.

"I loved him. I didn't want him gone. I didn't want him out of my life," Cynthia says. "There is no link between me and arsenic. And they can look for the rest of my life and they won't find one."

And, in fact, NCIS never did find any direct evidence that Cynthia Sommer poisoned her husband or that she had researched or bought arsenic, even when they searched her computer in Florida.

"The question was posed, you know, 'How long have you had your computer?' that type of thing. And she had indicated that it's been the same computer that she had in San Diego," Terwilliger says.

Investigators say they soon learned Cynthia hadn't told them the whole story.

"That was not the computer, at least that was not the computer that had been in the home prior to Todd's death," says Terwilliger.

What happened to the first computer, which investigators photographed at the crime scene in Cynthia's San Diego home? In 2007, she told 48 Hours that it somehow disappeared. She says she had moved five times since the death and that it may have been thrown away.

With her trial about to begin, it doesn't look good for Cynthia. But she's about to get some help from one of the last places she'd ever expect.

Prosecutors believe they have everything they need to prove Cynthia Sommer murdered her husband Todd with arsenic. On Jan. 4, 2007, nearly five years after he died, she went on trial.

"The murder weapon was poison," prosecutor Laura Gunn tells the jury. "Todd Sommer was pronounced dead at Sharp Memorial Hospital at 2:34 in the morning on Feb. 18."

Bob Udell was Cynthia's defense attorney at the time. "The evidence will prove to you that Cindy did not have a motive to kill Todd or have any desire to kill Todd," he says.

Cynthia Sommer takes the stand to prove her innocence. She Cynthia is ready to tell the jury her story about the last night of her husband's life. "He looked at me and he said, 'I'm OK, I'm alright,' and he fell down," she says from witness stand.

Udell wants the jury to listen closely to the 911 call, which, he says, proves Cynthia was doing all she could to save Todd's life.

"Todd, I love you. Don't do this to me. What am I going to do without you," Cynthia is heard saying on the call.

"When I called 911 it seemed like forever for them to even come to the house," she recalls.

Prosecutor Laura Gunn thinks Cynthia's 911 call tells a very different story about what happened the night Todd Sommer died. She was especially curious about that 911 call, which Cynthia said was made on a cordless phone. On the 911 tapes, Cynthia indicated she was doing CPR on Todd while she was on the phone.

Prosecutors wonder how Cynthia could be performing CPR if she was holding the phone with one hand.

"I don't remember. I was in shock. I mean I know I had speaker phone on my phone. I don't know if that's what I did. I don't know if I just had it on my shoulder," Cynthia says.

But the paramedics say when they arrived, Cynthia was just standing over Todd's body; she wasn't doing any CPR. What's also intriguing is that they say the body was already cool to the touch. So when did Todd die?

Todd Sommer was pronounced dead at the hospital at 2:34 a.m., but Medical Examiner Dr. Glenn Wagner told 48 Hours the appearance and temperature of Todd's body noted in the hospital records indicate he may have died much earlier that night.

"It's quite likely that Todd Sommer was in fact dead for some period of time before the 911 was called , maybe as much as an hour to two hours," he says.

If Wagner is right, why did Cynthia wait so long to call for help? There are more questions about what Cynthia did that night.

Eva Stoner is the military police officer who drove Cynthia to the hospital. She says Cynthia didn't appear to be in any rush. "After I had picked her up from her home, and was transporting her to the hospital, she wanted to stop at the store to pick up cigarettes."

In fact, Stoner says, Cynthia didn't seem very upset at all. "She wasn't crying in the vehicle, she wasn't crying at the hospital and even when the staff came in and told her that 'we're sorry your husband has passed away,' I don't remember her actually showing tears. I remember her crying, but it's more like -- more like the act of crying."

Cynthia's behavior that night raised a lot of questions for a lot of people, but so did the circumstances of Todd's death.

Al Poklis, a leading arsenic expert, was first approached by NCIS early in the investigation. He says tests performed on Todd's body raised critical questions in his mind.

Poklis says the clinical record of Todd's illness show he wasn't sick enough for it to have been arsenic poisoning. He is convinced something's wrong with the prosecution's crucial evidence -- those lab tests that found lethal levels of arsenic only in Todd's liver and kidneys.

"All body fluids and tissues are gonna be elevated with arsenic," he explains. "It attacks and kills all the tissues in the body. It's how it works. It doesn't selectively go to the liver or go to the kidney."

At trial, Poklis testified that a lethal dose of arsenic is carried by the blood to all organs. He strongly criticized the lab's testing methods. "It concerned me who did this test," he testifies.

The tests were conducted at a military laboratory. They routinely test for toxins like arsenic, but they usually test water and soil. According to Poklis, they rarely test for arsenic in human tissues like the liver, kidney and brain. It was a red flag and he brought it to the attention of NCIS investigators.

"I should say that after the NCIS came and saw me, and I said, 'You have problems here and you have problems there and you oughta get the forensic people involved in this,' I never heard from 'em," he tells Schlesinger.

But Poklisdid hear from Bob Udell, Cynthia Sommer's defense attorney, just a couple of months before the trial.

"He's tellin' me that what I looked at is the scientific evidence, if you will, in the case. I couldn't believe, you know, that this was the evidence that they had," Poklis recalls.

Poklis found it hard to believe that Todd would be able to go to work, let alone to an amusement park, if he had been given a large dose of arsenic.

"Arsenic kills everything," he says with a laugh. "Every kind of mammal. So, healthy rats die quick. Healthy coyotes die quick."

"I mean in your view, was Todd Sommer poisoned at all?" asks Schlesinger. Poklis says, "No."

But Dr. Glenn Wagner, the medical examiner, says it is possible for someone to walk around with a high level of arsenic in his body if he is healthy and strong like, Todd Sommer.

"It depends on the body's ability to metabolize that poison. The body does a pretty good job under most circumstances to eliminate toxins. At some point, the body is overwhelmed," Wagner says.

Wagner believes that's what happened when the arsenic got into Todd's body: his heart simply gave out. "…when I looked at the lab studies, the only conclusion I could come to is that this was a case of acute arsenic poisoning. He died when he died because of the direct effect of arsenic on the heart."

The jurors may have a tough time deciding which experts to believe, but the prosecution has something else for them to consider.

"I believe it was a well-thought-out crime," says Terwilliger." She appeared to be the doting wife, she made well-placed phone calls…"

If she was a doting wife who just lost the love of her life, the NCIS says she sure didn't act like it in the hours and days after her husband died.

"She had portrayed herself as this grieving widow," Terwilliger says. "But at the same time, went into another type of lifestyle as almost as if she was celebrating."

For the first and only time, Todd Sommer's mother, Yvonne, who had never spoken publicly about her son's death, recounted on the stand the moment Cynthia told her that her only son had died. "The final call would have been that they couldn't bring Todd back, that he was dead," she testified.

She tells the jury in Cynthia's trial she was particularly troubled about an argument she had with Cynthia the night of Todd's memorial service, when Cynthia stayed out late with friends. "She told me to mind my own business, that she would grieve her way, and I could grieve my way."

But Cynthia's mother, Jan Lippert, told the jury her daughter was overcome with grief when Todd died. "She was curled up in the fetal position and she was clinging onto one of Todd's shirts. And she was just sobbing uncontrollably. It was just a pitiful sight."

Investigators say the way Cynthia Sommer grieved in the hours after her husband died raised a lot of eyebrows, to say the least.

"Todd had been deceased not more than three hours and she was calling the family accountant and asking about taxes and how she should file and how they were gonna get their refund -- things of that nature, so money seemed to be the driving force here," Terwilliger says.

"I wasn't asking about money. My husband had just died. And I knew that being a military wife, I lost everything," Cynthia says. "I have four children and I just felt like my life had … everything that I had known at that time was gone."

Cynthia got the $250,000 from Todd's life insurance policy and investigators say Todd's family convinced her to put roughly half of it in a trust fund for the children. Cynthia used the remaining money to pay off some debts, buy some clothes and jewelry, and pay for those breast implants.

Cynthia apparently found other ways to make herself feel better. Her social life after Todd's death gave prosecutors even more ammunition.

Friends Dana Benton and Chantra Wells testified that the recent widow participated in a wet T-shirt contest, as well as a thong contest, during a trip to Tijuana, Mexico.

"I understand I did the thong contest and people do it in spring break all the time. I don't think the actions that I did justified bringing me to trial," she says.

But Former Marine Christopher Reed, who spoke at Todd's memorial service, made things tougher for Cynthia when he testified that had three-way sex with him and his wife shortly after Todd died.

Other former Marines also testified about their sexual encounters with Cynthia in the weeks after Todd's death.

"It's not just a one-sided thing. I didn't go to the bar and pick up all these, you know, random guys. These were people I knew," Cynthia says. "I missed my husband and I wanted companionship and that's how I got it."

But Cynthia believes the case is more about her morality than Todd's murder. And as the case goes to the jury, she is confident.

But after three days of deliberations, the jury reaches a verdict: guilty.

The verdict was a devastating blow to Udell. "I don't know how I'm gonna go on. I haven't slept one night … I don't know what to do, I'm part of Cindy's nightmare."

With a guilty verdict-with any verdict-most cases are over, but not this one.

The biggest surprise is yet to come.

Ten months after Cynthia was convicted of poisoning her husband she appeared at her sentencing hearing with a brash new lawyer and a bold new strategy.

Attorney Allen Bloom asked the judge not to sentence Cynthia, but to grant her a new trial.

"The evidence is incredibly underwhelming in terms of proving Cindy Sommer's killed Todd Sommer," Bloom explains.

Bloom says there was a mountain of errors committed by her attorney, Bob Udell. "The errors that occurred in this case were not harmless," he says.

"It is common and understandable to want to have a do-over with a better attorney," says prosecutor Laura Gunn.

Lawyers rarely do this, but Bloom puts Udell on the stand. He wants to know why Udell called Cynthia's mother, Jan Lippert, to testify about her daughter's behavior after Todd died.

Bloom argues Lippert's testimony, about how Cynthia grieved, opened the door for prosecutors to present all that testimony about Cynthia's sexual behavior after Todd's death. And that turned the tide against her.

"Ms. Sommer, I think, did not get the result that she wanted, she did not get the result that she expected, but your Honor, she should not get a new trial based on what you've heard here today," she says.

The judge gets the last word and everyone in the courtroom is stunned.

The decision: "I'm going to order that Ms. Sommer be allowed to have a new trial," Judge Peter Deddeh ruled. "I'm going to grant a new trial motion."

It was a million-to-one shot.

"This puts us back at square one, where Cindy really has a right to show her innocence in a full and complete way," Bloom tells reporters at a press conference.

In January 2008, more than a year after Cynthia Sommer's murder conviction and almost six years after Todd Sommer's death, Bloom begins preparing for Cynthia's retrial. He's eager to attack the prosecutors.

"They're not supposed to prosecute a crime where there is no crime, That's what happened here. There was no crime," states Bloom.

The defense atorney will build his case largely on those lab tests he says are faulty because they found arsenic in some of the tissue samples but not in others.

"There were lots of problems in the case. There was a fault of going to a laboratory that didn't know how to do the testing. If you're not expert in how to do the testing you can end up with contamination," he tells Schlesinger.

Bloom was suspicious of 31 tissue samples listed on Todd Sommer's original autopsy report that were never tested. "…the central issue is when did they know about the 31 tissues and when did they know that those tissues were important?" he says.

Bloom found out the tissues had been in plain sight for years, on a shelf in the autopsy room at the Navy Hospital. And, what's more, all 31 samples had been preserved in wax.

"Those were not fresh samples. They were preserved, but we don't know what impact that preservation would have had, which is why we didn't test them and which is why the defense probably didn't test them as well," says District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

About a month before Cynthia Sommer's retrial, prosecutors sent the samples to an internationally-renowned lab to be tested for arsenic.

"It was startling information for us to receive," Dumanis says. "The prosecutor came up to meet with me and the assistant district attorney to say, 'We got back the results on those tissues that we tested and it shows no arsenic.'"

No arsenic. How did that happen?

Defense experts believe it's more proof that the original tests NCIS ordered on Todd's tissues were botched -- that the liver and kidney samples were contaminated with arsenic after he died. NCIS agents won't say what they think happened, but Dumanis had to make a tough decision. "My immediate thought was, 'We have to do the right thing here.'"

And so without hesitation, just two weeks before Cynthia Sommer's new trial was supposed to start, the prosecution made a stunning announcement. Dumanis concluded that there was reasonable doubt and therefore the case was dismissed.

Once Dumanis dropped the murder charges, a judge set Cynthia free. It happened so quickly, Cynthia wasn't there and her lawyer didn't have time to dress for court.

Cynthia didn't know for sure what was happening and called her mother in Michigan.

Lippert recalls, "Cindy called me. And she said, 'Mom, do you know what's going on?' And so I said, 'Well, you're being released."

Moments later, Allen Bloom went to the jail and Cynthia Sommer, who had been behind bars for 876 days -- almost 2-and-a-half years -- was walking out of jail a free woman.

Lippert flew to California the very next day to be with her daughter. "It was a joyful reunion. I mean she looked great. It was one of those moments in time that you just -- you'll never, ever forget. And I just hugged her and held on to her for a long time."

"Given the fact that this case has been dropped, or the charges have been dropped for now, I mean it's only natural to assume that you would be looking back and saying, 'What went wrong here?' says Schlesinger. "I'm just trying to get a sense of what you think you might have done wrong."

"Well until we go over it, I don't think I can tell you that," Dumanis says.

When asked if she thinks she did anything wrong, she replies, "I can't answer that until we look at everything."

Eight months after the murder charges were dropped, Cynthia Sommer was back in Michigan living life as a busy mom.

She knows she can't erase her past, but she's not bitter. "I'm a better person for it," she says. "I've certainly grown up because of the things that have happened. And I've certainly learned a lot because of it."

Cynthia's children are her focus these days. She lost custody of all four of them when she was arrested for Todd's murder. She now lives with her oldest son and daughter again. Her next court battle is to get her two younger sons back. They have lived with Cynthia's brother since her arrest in 2005.

"Can you see a point where your life is back to normal?" asks Schlesinger.

"I don't think there's ever gonna be a normal as I knew a normal before," Cynthia says. "I don't want my life how it was before I was arrested. I like my life now. And I like who I am today. So in that sense of normal, no. I like the normal now."

And as for Todd? Cynthia says that her feelings for him have not faded and she thinks about him and misses him all the time. "I love him," she says.

Todd Sommer's death is still officially listed as a homicide.



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