- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

ORANGE, Va. — A judge yesterday acquitted a hospice nurse accused of fatally poisoning her husband at their estate so she could inherit his $15 million fortune.

Orange County Circuit Judge Daniel R. Bouton ruled that prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Donna Somerville gave her husband, Hamilton Somerville, narcotics over several months.

“Mrs. Somerville is acquitted, but Mrs. Somerville will also have to live with what happened,” special prosecutor Randy Krantz said outside the courthouse.

Mrs. Somerville, 51, and her attorneys left through a side door without talking to reporters.

Mr. Somerville’s three daughters from a previous marriage embraced and wept gently after Judge Bouton announced the verdict.

“The judge did what he thought was right,” said Alita Miller of Philadelphia, the daughter who insisted on an autopsy. “We all have to abide by that. I have to try to find some peace with this.”

Another prosecutor, Mark Robinette, said poisoning deaths are the toughest type of circumstantial evidence cases to prove.

“We put on everything we had. It just wasn’t quite enough,” he said.

Had she been convicted of first-degree murder, Mrs. Somerville could have been sentenced to life in prison.

In closing arguments, Mrs. Somerville’s attorney said the evidence “cries out for an acquittal” while the prosecutor scoffed, “The entire defense rests by a hair.” It was a reference to expert defense testimony, based on a hair sample from Mr. Somerville, that found evidence of prolonged drug use.

In rebuttal testimony earlier yesterday, Virginia’s chief medical examiner said Mr. Somerville died of a “truly impressive” dose of drugs.

“The combination of those drugs was clearly lethal,” Dr. Marcella Fierro testified.

The defense contended that Mr. Somerville, a 57-year-old cattle farmer, died of a heart attack or took the lethal dosage of drugs on his own. Mrs. Somerville did not take the stand.

Defense attorney Charles Bowman suggested that Mr. Somerville, a recovering alcoholic, likely had been taking the drugs on his own. He recalled a witness testifying that Mr. Somerville stopped going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings about two years before his death.

“The last place somebody using drugs wants to be is an AA meeting,” Mr. Bowman said.

He also questioned why Mrs. Somerville would have called 911 so soon if she wanted her husband dead.

“Why does Donna Somerville call the rescue squad … if she’s a cold-blooded, laying-in-wait killer?” Mr. Bowman asked.

He said the prosecution had failed to prove a crime had been committed.

Prosecutors argued that Mrs. Somerville had affairs with several men and that she stood to gain more from her husband’s death than from a divorce if the affairs were proved. The couple’s holdings include their 345-acre Mount Athos estate, once owned by James Madison’s family.

Mr. Krantz said in his closing that a poisoning “requires subterfuge, it requires cunning, it requires careful planning, and more often than not, a repetition of the act of delivering death.”

“Donna Somerville was opportunistic, she was selfish, she saw the opportunity and she went for it,” he said.

Prosecutors contended that Mrs. Somerville’s work as a volunteer hospice nurse gave her access to the drugs that killed her husband. However, there was no testimony that she ever possessed the drugs or that any of her patients was missing medication.

Witnesses for the prosecution testified that Mrs. Somerville begged paramedics to stop resuscitation efforts the night her husband died, saying her father suffered through similar unsuccessful efforts. She also tried to have the body cremated that night and later attempted to stop the autopsy.

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