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Wife guilty of Marine's arsenic murder

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV
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SAN DIEGO, California (Court TV) -- A woman was found guilty on Tuesday 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, showed little reaction Tuesday as the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder in the 2002 arsenic poisoning of Sgt. Todd Sommer.

She faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

"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'" (Watch Sommer's face as the verdict is announced Video)

The panel of seven women and five men deliberated for about 12 hours over three days before returning the verdict, which included the special allegations of administering poison and murder for financial gain.

After the jury was excused, Sommer put her hand to her forehead and slowly shook her head but did not cry. She will be sentenced on March 23.

Cynthia 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.

Marine died suddenly

Todd Sommer, a healthy young Marine, died suddenly on February 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 due to cardiac arrhythmia. 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, Mexico, 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 active 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.

Experts disagreed

During the monthlong 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 would not discuss the case with reporters.

Sommer's three youngest children, including Christian, the son she shared with Todd Sommer, 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.

Udell said an appeal is planned.

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Cynthia Sommer reacts after jurors find her guilty of first-degree murder.

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