Friday, June 18, 2004 Print This | Email This     

Trial opens for Virginia wife accused of poisoning millionaire husband

By Emanuella Grinberg, Court TV

(Court TV) — Black widow. Adulterous gold digger.

Since Donna Somerville's 2003 indictment and arrest for her millionaire husband's death, these are just some of the ways the former hospice worker has been characterized in the extensive press leading up to her first-degree murder trial.

Somerville will stand trial Thursday for Hamilton "Ham" Somerville's 2001 death in the tiny Virginia hamlet of Orange, where the Somerville family resided for three generations in an opulent home perched atop a hill.

It was there on Mt. Athos, the 445-acre estate the Somervilles inherited from the duPont family, on land that once belonged to James Madison Sr., that police found Ham Somerville dead in his bed on Nov. 13, 2001, from a drug overdose.

Prosecutors say Donna Somerville, 51, poisoned her 57-year-old husband with codeine and morphine and then sought an immediate cremation to destroy the evidence.

Ham Somerville's daughters intervened and canceled the cremation just 30 minutes before Donna Somerville had scheduled it, the morning after his death.

Because of the media frenzy surrounding the investigation, defense attorney Charles Bowman's initial request for an out-of-town jury was granted. Then Bowman sought, and was granted, a bench trial.

"Even the cause of death, a central issue in this case, has been widely published as 'murder' as if there was no question of suicide or accidental overdose," Bowman wrote in a May 14 court filing.

Prosecutors supported the defense requests. "We all felt that we wanted an impartial trier of fact to hear this case. Both sides are satisfied with the decision," said Mark Robinette, a Hanover County prosecutor.

Robinette and co-prosecutor Randy Krantz came from neighboring Virginia counties to try the case in the place of an Orange County prosecutor who faced a conflict of interest for having taken part in a business deal with Ham Somerville.

Robinette said nearly 100 witnesses have been subpoenad to testify against Donna Somerville, in a case he admits its "largely circumstantial."

"People are conditioned to expect some smoking gun evidence that will conclusively prove someone's innocence or guilt," said Robinette. "But really what we're doing is putting together one case like pieces of a puzzle."

Robinette plans to introduce recorded phone conversations to bolster the prosecution's contention that Donna Somerville was having numerous liaisons with local men before her husband's death.

The prosecution believes a divorce was imminent for the couple, who married in 1991 after Ham Somerville's first wife, Sidney, died of breast cancer under Donna's care as a hospice worker.

They contend Ham's younger wife stood to gain significantly less than the estimated $15 million he was worth had the relationship ended in divorce, amid rumors of infidelity.

Donna Somerville says her husband, whose health was flagging in weeks before his death, administered the deadly dose himself.

According to press reports, defense attorneys are expected to argue that Ham Somerville had used both drugs for months before he died. Tests performed on one of his hairs showed concentrations of three opiates, including the two on which he overdosed, according to a toxicology report ordered by the defense team.

If convicted, Somerville faces life in prison.

Ham Somerville's three daughters filed a separate civil suit against Donna Somerville for $15 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages for their father's death.