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. The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2013. Sommer sought compensation from the State of California, but the claim was denied.