Since Donna Somerville's Valentine's Day arrest more than two years ago, Orange County has gossiped about whether the murder charges were true -- whether the nurse had poisoned her wealthy husband, and if so, why?
With Somerville's trial set to start in less than three weeks, it appears this rural county west of Fredericksburg will hear a lot about her relationship with Hamilton "Ham" Somerville, a 57-year-old gentleman farmer who was related to the du Ponts and worth close to $15 million, according to attorneys in a separate civil suit against the widow.
Last week, the judge in the case ruled that prosecutors can use phone-tap evidence they say will support their theory that Somerville, 51, a hospice nurse, administered deadly amounts of morphine and codeine to her husband in November 2001 because she wanted out of her marriage. The conversations, they say, suggest that she had already had affairs with other men.
Defense attorneys had tried to keep out the phone-tap evidence, arguing that bugging phones can be done only if all other investigative means have been exhausted, including the impaneling of a special grand jury. But prosecutors argued that they had tried to interview dozens of people before seeking wiretaps on Somerville's home and cell phones, and Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Bouton agreed that their efforts were sufficient.
Court documents, including search warrants filed over the years, have offered details ranging from alleged drug use at Somerville's hilltop mansion, Mount Athos, to the scene there the night rescue workers responded to a call that Ham Somerville was choking. Sheriff's deputies quoted Donna Somerville as begging rescue workers to stop trying to save her husband -- saying her father had gone through similar trauma and wasn't saved -- and demanding that Ham be cremated immediately, saying it was his explicit wish.
An autopsy was done, revealing that Ham Somerville died of a drug overdose, according to a search warrant request. The request also noted that his doctor had not prescribed either morphine or codeine for him. Both sides have sought in-depth hair and blood tests, which defense attorney Charles Bowman has suggested would show whether Somerville used drugs before his death. He was a recovering alcoholic.
In a county of vast horse farms and elegantly appointed mansions, infidelity rumors and the murder charge have brought a torrent of media coverage, including an article in glossy Vanity Fair magazine last year. "I had to have mine shipped in from Richmond," Bowman said, recalling the scarcity of copies. The media coverage prejudiced Orange County, he argued before Bouton, who agreed and called for jurors to be picked from elsewhere. Bouton has not yet said from where he will draw the jury for the trial, which is to start June 17.
Media coverage has been "just the height of speculation and extrapolation," Bowman said.
The prosecution team was also imported; Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler recently worked in a law firm with one of Ham Somerville's relatives and said she had a conflict of interest.
Prosecutors were forced to turn to wiretaps because so many people refused to cooperate with police, in part because they said they didn't want to incriminate themselves, said Randy Krantz, the commonwealth's attorney in Bedford County and one of the prosecutors brought in to replace Wheeler. Among those on the government's witness list are two men who prosecutors say had romantic relationships with Donna Somerville, who had been the hospice nurse for Somerville's first wife, Sidney.
The case has divided the little hamlet of Somerset, with some refusing to pass judgment until the evidence is heard and others railing openly against the blonde Yankee -- from New Jersey -- who they say flirted with and touched other men in public and took for granted the mild-mannered farmer who adored her. When the two married in 1991, Donna Somerville was 39 and Sidney Somerville had been dead less than a year.
The fires have been stoked by documents from three cases: the criminal case and two civil ones, both on behalf of Ham Somerville's three daughters. One seeks to keep their stepmother from activating a will that awards her hundreds of acres and extensive financial holdings. The other seeks $350,000 in punitive damages -- the cap in Virginia -- from her and compensatory damages of $15 million, an amount the sisters' attorneys say is perhaps slightly more than their father's net worth.
Although the trial will provide lots more fodder, it's for the jury to say whether it will provide hard proof of what happened to Ham Somerville.
Even Mark Robinette, Krantz's co-prosecutor and an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Hanover County, describes their case as "a circumstantial evidence case."
"In such a case, every bit of evidence matters; it's a matter of putting bricks in the wall," he said. "No one piece of evidence will carry the day."