Original article available online through the Virginian-Pilot.
A legal case that sounds like a made-for-TV movie has been resolved with a widow acquitted of murder, yet found liable in a mediation that was part of a wrongful-death lawsuit handled by a Virginia Beach lawyer.
In fact, the case of Donna Somerville, a former hospice nurse accused of poisoning her husband, was fictionalized as a 2005 Lifetime movie titled “Widow on the Hill.” On Friday, a judge approved a wrongful-death settlement that conveyed the house on that hill, known as Mt. Athos, to Hamilton Somerville’s three natural daughters.
“You seek justice,” their lawyer, Randy Singer, said, “and we feel like we got justice in the civil case.”
The daughters grew up in the house on the farm northeast of Charlottesville but haven’t set foot inside for nine years. Their stepmother, Donna Somerville, lived there until a mediation in the civil suit ended with a decision against her in March. The decision was kept confidential until it was filed as part of the final settlement order in Orange County Circuit Court.
“Finally, we feel like there’s vindication,” said Sara Somerville, one of the three daughters, “that we have peace of mind, that we can have a good night’s sleep.”
“There’s finally closure, and we can go home,” said her sister Ginger Somerville-
Both were in Singer’s office at Regent University School of Law on Friday morning before driving to Orange County for a gathering with friends and supporters. The two women from South Carolina, plus sister Alita Miller of Philadelphia, will return today to their childhood home on the hill.
Retired Judge Robert L. Harris Sr. mediated the wrongful-death suit against Donna Somerville, and in his order wrote, “It is my opinion by preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant is liable.”
The case really began in the early 1990s when Donna Ecochard Scott, as she was then known, was hired as a hospice nurse for Hamilton Somerville’s wife, Sidney, who was dying of cancer. Less than a year after Sidney Somerville’s death, Hamilton married Donna.
He died in November 2001. In his argument before Judge Harris, Singer said that Donna called rescue workers to Mt. Athos but asked them to stop trying to resuscitate her husband and said she wanted his body cremated that night. The daughters insisted on an autopsy, which revealed large amounts of morphine, codeine, Oxycodone and promethazine in his stomach, blood, liver and eye fluid, Singer said.
During the criminal trial, the defense painted Hamilton Somerville as abusing painkillers and his death an accidental overdose, Singer said. Prosecutors asserted that Donna Somerville was having an extramarital affair and said she had access to the drugs through her work as a hospice nurse, a job she had quit years earlier, and to which she returned only a few months before her husband’s death.
The judge in the criminal case ruled in 2004 that the circumstantial evidence was not sufficient to convict her, in part because tests of Hamilton Somerville’s hair suggested long exposure to the drugs.
But in arguing the wrongful-death lawsuit, Singer said new data from the testing lab indicated that hair could be contaminated with drugs from outside sources, which would give incorrect results.
Somerville’s hair had vomit in it the night he died, and the vomit could have contained drugs expelled from his stomach, he said.
In a criminal case, guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In a wrongful-death civil suit, the preponderance of evidence must point to guilt.
Keith C. Cuthrell Jr., a lawyer who also worked on the civil suit, said Donna Somerville had tried to sell Mt. Athos but the daughters filed to prevent that until the civil case was settled. Mt. Athos was once part of President James Madison’s Montpelier estate.
“This has been one of the most hard-fought cases I have ever handled,” Singer said.
In addition to practicing law, Singer is a preacher and an author of legal thrillers. He said there is balance between preaching forgiveness and seeking damages in court.
“My role is two fold,” he said. “To be the most fierce advocate I can for justice, because Scripture is all about justice, but also to be a counselor. The very last thing we did at mediation was go to Romans 12 – don’t take vengeance into your own hands. Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil -”
“With good,” Somerville-Grant finished.
Cuthrell said his goal was also to reclaim Hamilton Somerville’s reputation from the accusations of drug addiction. Cuthrell said he wanted “a very public resolution” to the case for that reason, in addition to returning the farm to the daughters.
The Mt. Athos farm will become a retirement home for unwanted show horses, Sara Somerville said.