Va. Woman Acquitted In Death Of Husband
Poisoning for Inheritance Unproved, Judge Rules
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page B01
ORANGE, Va., June 29 -- A nurse accused of poisoning her wealthy husband to end an unhappy marriage and inherit his millions was acquitted Tuesday by a judge who said the circumstantial evidence had too many holes.
Donna Somerville, 51, went pale and trembled after Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Bouton found reasonable doubt that she gave Hamilton Somerville, 57, an overdose of Oxycodone, codeine and morphine in fall 2001. She then was hustled out of the crowded courtroom by her attorneys and driven away. In the parking lot, her supporters whooped cheers of "Not guilty!" and scattered as well.
Two civil suits remain against Somerville, filed by her husband's three daughters. But as of Tuesday, she was the primary heir to an estate valued at about $15 million. If she had been convicted, she would have faced a sentence of 20 years to life.
"Poisoning cases are the hardest of all homicides, because they're done in a stealthy way," prosecutor Randy Krantz said. "But we came into this case feeling it needed to be litigated. We were convinced of her guilt."
Hamilton Somerville's daughters wept after the verdict and clung to one another. "We want to return to our lives and find some peace and normalcy -- something we haven't had in 14 years," said Alita Somerville Miller, who triggered the criminal case when she objected to her stepmother's insistence on cremation for her husband the night he died. It was 14 years ago that Hamilton Somerville hired Donna Somerville -- then Donna Ecochard Scott, a hospice nurse -- to care for his first wife, Sydney, as she succumbed to cancer.
Attorneys on both sides used emotional imagery and language in the 12-day trial that even Bouton called "unusual" because of the national media attention to the death of Hamilton Somerville, a gentleman farmer who was related to the du Pont family and owned a 345-acre estate called Mount Athos.
For more than three years, residents have gossiped about the case of Donna Somerville, who married Hamilton Somerville less than a year after his first wife's death. Seeing that their case was circumstantial, prosecutors zeroed in on Donna Somerville's character: her romantic relationship with a client, her decision to return to hospice work just a few months before Sydney Somerville died -- giving her access to medication -- and her insistence that he be cremated without an autopsy.
"Donna Somerville was opportunistic and selfish. She saw the opportunity, and she went for it," said Krantz, who was brought in from Bedford County, where he is commonwealth's attorney, because Orange County's prosecutor had worked with one of Hamilton Somerville's relatives. "It doesn't take expert testimony -- we know it viscerally."
Donna Somerville, who has been free on bail since her February 2002 arrest, barely shifted her blank facial expression through Krantz's 75-minute closing argument. Only when he stopped speaking did she lift her head noticeably, as if literally holding her head high.
Defense attorneys insisted that the case was a scientific one. They pointed to an independent hair analysis that suggested that Hamilton Somerville had a long exposure to the drugs that killed him. They also challenged the autopsy by the state's chief medical examiner, which concluded that he died of a drug overdose.
Toxicologists brought in by the defense testified that Hamilton Somerville, who was a heavy smoker and about 60 pounds overweight, may have had a heart attack. "The cause of death . . . has not been proven to a moral certainty as required by the commonwealth," defense attorney Charles Bowman told spectators in the standing-room-only courtroom.
In announcing his decision, Bouton said he agreed that there was doubt about the cause of death as well as Donna Somerville's motives. In a circumstantial case, he said, "the chain has to be unbroken."
Bouton granted the defense request for a non-jury trial after both sides agreed that media coverage, including a long article in Vanity Fair, might make picking an unbiased jury difficult.
The trial has provided high drama in the county. More than 70 witnesses, including many local residents, were called to testify about alleged drug use and infidelity among their wealthy neighbors. Two men testified that they had sexual relationships with Donna Somerville during her marriage to Hamilton Somerville.
Both sides painted dark images of the couple's life together, with Krantz alleging that Donna Somerville began slowly drugging her husband to the point where he was sluggish and his skin appeared "waxy," hoping to make it look as if he had a drug problem. Bowman, on the other hand, painted Hamilton Somerville as a recovering alcoholic who had tumbled off the wagon and was sneaking his wife's pain medication.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company