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Judge orders new trial for Marine widow

Defense attorney's errors are cited in case against woman charged with killing her husband to get his life insurance.

December 01, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A judge Friday ordered a new trial for a 34-year-old mother of four who was convicted in January of fatally poisoning her Marine husband so she could use his life insurance to indulge in a libertine lifestyle.

Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh ruled that the defense attorney for Cynthia Sommer made a serious error in presenting evidence that allowed prosecution witnesses to talk about Sommer's behavior after her husband's death.

The witnesses told jurors that Sommer had her breasts enlarged, had sex with three Marines and participated in a thong and wet T-shirt contest in Tijuana.

Defense lawyer Robert Udell conceded during a daylong hearing that he made several errors defending Sommer.

Sommer's new attorney, Allen Bloom, asked Deddeh to order a new trial on the grounds that Udell's defense tactics were flawed. Testimony about breasts, drinking and sex was so scandalous to jurors that it deprived Sommer of the chance for a fair trial, he argued.

If Deddeh had rejected Bloom's motion, he would have had to sentence Sommer to life in prison without parole. She was convicted of first-degree murder.

Sommer's husband, Sgt. Todd Sommer, died mysteriously at their apartment at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in February 2002. An initial autopsy concluded that he may have died from a heart attack, but an examination months later found elevated levels of arsenic in his liver and kidneys.

Bloom, in his motion, also argued that Udell failed to properly question the prosecution's theory about arsenic being the cause of death. Bloom said he is prepared to call experts to suggest that the 23-year-old Marine died of an undiagnosed ailment or from an overdose of a diarrhea drug or a now-banned weight-loss pill.

During the high-profile trial, Deddeh initially ruled that prosecutors could not present "lifestyle" evidence about Sommer's conduct after her husband's death because it was unrelated to the murder charge.

But after Udell called Sommer's mother to testify that her daughter was a grieving widow, the judge allowed prosecutors to call Marines who had sex with Sommer, neighbors who complained about loud parties and co-workers from a sandwich shop who said they went to Tijuana with Sommer to attend a wet T-shirt contest where she flashed her breasts.

Bloom said the prosecution, in effect, used that evidence to convince jurors to overlook the "fuzzy" science about the effect of arsenic on the body and the lack of evidence that Cynthia Sommer had purchased arsenic.

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