By Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline Correspondent
It's been a long road for Cindy Sommer. Her U.S. Marine husband died in February, 2002, and she just got out of jail last week after being convicted by a jury of his murder. Now here's the hitch: she's innocent. Officially.
Cops and prosecutors will tell you, somewhat derisively, that the jails and prisons are just full of innocent men and women, that everyone behind bars comes armed with a story about how they got jobbed by the system. I don't know how often that's true, but it's certainly true for Cindy Sommer.
Her husband dropped dead on the bedroom floor that awful night, and although Cindy tried to do CPR, Todd Sommer died at only 23. The official cause of death was a heart attack.
A year or so later, Naval investigators (NCIS) were about to close the case when they decided to send Todd's tissue samples to a lab for heavy-metals analysis. That lab test came back showing more than a thousand times the amount of arsenic in Todd Sommer's tissues than should have been there.
NCIS began looking at Cindy as a possible murder suspect, because she received a life-insurance payout of $250,000 after her husband died. Never mind that she put more than half the money into a trust for her four kids, never mind that she paid off a number of family debts with what was left over (military families are always scraping to make ends meet). It was what Cindy did with about $5,600 of that money that raised both eyebrows and suspicions. She got breast implants.
She also comported herself somewhat oddly in the days and weeks after her husband's death; she hooked up with other Marines and went to Tijuana for a wet T-Shirt contest. In a vacuum, that conduct wouldn't have merited more than some eye-rolling and disdain. Against the backdrop of arsenic poisoning, it looked sinister -- as if, as the prosecutor said, she were celebrating. In truth, there was nothing to suggest celebration in her libertine behavior, and none of it should have substituted for evidence of a crime. But all of it came into the courtroom via a lawyer's error, and jurors heard every sordid detail.
What no one listened to, apparently, was that there wasn't a single shred of evidence that Cindy Sommer had bought arsenic, asked anyone about it, handled it, or Googled it. Similarly, prosecutors couldn't find anyone who had heard her say that she had a bad marriage, was going to leave her husband, or wished she were single again.
But there was that test showing arsenic in Todd's tissues. During the trial, defense attorneys attacked the veracity of the test and some chain-of-custody issues, but ultimately the test stood up in court. In doing so, it made all her other behavior seem nefarious, like her inquiries about money immediately after Todd's death, like her short-term affairs, like her new breasts, like her attempts to perform CPR (prosecutors said she was faking it for the 911 tape).
In this country, we're taught, courtesy of all those forensic TV dramas, that when the lab boys say something is true, you can take it to the bank. But this time, on CSI-San Diego, the story ended differently.
It now seems more attention -- maybe a lot more -- should have been paid to that positive-for-arsenic test, because when other, untested samples of Todd Sommer's tissues were found a couple of weeks ago, prosecutors had them analyzed. They found no trace of arsenic. Criminal case over; Cindy set free. Except she spent two years and four months behind bars, away from her kids. She emerged from jail a few days ago having lost pretty much everything; while she's astonishingly chipper, she's about to embody the term "starting over."
Cindy told me that in hindsight, there were some things she'd do differently. I imagine we might soon hear a similar comment from the prosecutors, who somehow went after her without examining all the available evidence.
All of this makes you wonder about all those other people behind bars who insist they're innocent, that in their case, the criminal justice system failed. I was always inclined to disbelieve them – until now.
Click here for "A Trace of Suspicion," a special Dateline featuring Josh Mankiewicz's interviews with Cindy Sommer.