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.

Original article available online through Daily Press.

In what is believed to be the first such verdict in the United States, a Virginia Beach jury ruled Thursday that an Isle of Wight gun store must pay $100,000 to the family of a woman murdered by a handgun sold from the store.

The jury decided the Guns Unlimited clerk who sold the semiautomatic pistol should have suspected it would end up illegally in the hands of then 15-year-old Nicholas Elliott, not the hands of an older relative who chauffeured the youth to the store, paid for the gun with Elliott’s money and then signed the federal paperwork.

Less than three months later, on Dec. 16, 1988, Elliott loaded the Cobray M-11 pistol with a 32-bullet magazine and went on a bloody rampage at his school, Atlantic Shores Christian Academy, murdering teacher Karen Farley.

Dennis Henigan, director of the Center To Prevent Handgun Control, which tracks gun control issues nationwide, said Thursday’s verdict is the first he knows of in which a store is held liable for damages resulting from a “straw purchase.” In straw purchases, someone buys a weapon merely to hand it over to someone else forbidden by law to buy or possess that weapon.

William Farley, the victim’s husband, said he was “absolutely” pleased with the verdict and the damages.

“We weren’t in it just for the money,” he said. “We wanted to alert gun store owners they need to be responsible.”

Nevertheless, Farley’s attorney, Randy Singer, requested a hearing with another jury to redetermine the damages award without retrying the case. Singer was hired on a contingency basis and will be paid with a percentage of the final judgment, Farley said.

Guns Unlimited’s attorney, Peter C. Manson Jr. said there was almost no chance of the judge granting that request. Manson plans to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Circuit Judge John K. Moore, who presided over the four-day case, set Feb. 21 to hear arguments on those motions.

In ruling for the Farley family, the jury also decided that the shooting spree was a “foreseeable” result of Elliott receiving the gun.

Williams served 15 months in prison for his part in providing the weapon to Elliott, who as a minor could not legally possess it. Elliott, now 19, is in jail, serving the remainder of a life-plus-114-year sentence for Farley’s murder.

Straw purchases, like the one between Williams and Elliott, are a “tremendous problem,” Henigan said. “We feel it’s high time for gun dealers to recognize their responsibility to the community to stop arming children and to stop arming criminals.”

Thursday’s verdict, Henigan said, is a big step in that direction.

Reaching such a verdict was easy, according to two jurors as they left the courthouse about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

Two days of often conflicting testimony had presented various versions of Elliott’s and Williams’ visit to Guns Unlimited, on Highway 17 in Carrollton.

Most versions, however, agreed that the youth and his relative arrived at the store together, that Elliott did much of the talking with store clerk Tony Massengill, that Elliott chose the weapon and that Elliott handed Williams $300 for the purchase only a few feet away from the display counters.

“It wasn’t difficult to decide,” said juror Mary McFetridge, “not on the negligence.”

A second juror, Yvonne Pettepit agreed, adding that she would like to see gun stores removed from Virginia altogether.

McFetridge and Pettepit said the jury of six women and a man spent most of their 2 1/2 hours behind closed doors deciding the more difficult issue of how much Guns Unlimited should pay to Farley’s husband and children.

The $100,000 total the jurors decided upon, with $20,000 going to Farley’s husband, William Farley, and $40,000 each going to her teen-age children, Lora and William Jr., was far less than the $3 million requested in the Farleys’ suit.

James S. Dick, owner of Guns Unlimited, said the relatively low damages awarded by the jury, damages he said his insurance will cover, indicated the jury’s decision was “a sympathy verdict.”

McFetridge said the jury decided Elliott’s mother was responsible, as well, for having bought bullets for her son’s gun, that clerk Tony Massengill was responsible for making the sale and that Atlantic Shores Christian Academy, the Virginia Beach school where Elliott studied and Farley taught, should have been more vigilant in matters such as checking students’ lockers.

The following opinion editorial written by Randy Singer was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In his recent speech at the United Nations, President Trump, never one given to understatement, blasted Iran as “a rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.” He once again described the Iran deal as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” The only thing missing was a nickname for Iran’s supreme leader.

Predictably, Iran’s foreign minister struck back, saying that “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times.” But the speech undoubtedly made our allies uncomfortable as well. A few weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had suggested that the Iran deal could provide a template for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis.

Despite opposition from the international community, Trump will probably refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal in October, effectively causing the deal to implode. He would be right, and acting within his rights, to do so.

There are three reasons the Iran deal is even worse than you think:

First, it releases our chokehold on terrorist financing. The essence of the deal is that the United States and five other nations will continue to roll back billions of dollars in sanctions as long as Iran complies with its promise not to develop weapons-grade uranium for use in nuclear weapons for 10 years. The deal fails to address Iran’s well-documented support of terrorism and, on the contrary, mandates sanctions relief for financial institutions that have facilitated terrorism.

As a lawyer, I represent the families of terrorist victims in lawsuits against Iran. I can tell you first-hand that when you pull back the curtain on the intricate web of terrorism financing, Iran is the one holding the money bag. Things will only get worse if Trump recertifies the deal.

Second, the deal puts a bounty on American citizens deployed abroad. President Barack Obama can deny it all he wants, but when the United States sent a plane to Iran on Jan. 16, 2016, containing $400 million in unmarked currencies, and the money was turned over on the same day that five U.S. hostages were freed (after which the United States sent an additional $1.3 billion to Iran), that is the definition of a quid pro quo. Despite this red-handed evidence, Obama declared, “We do not pay ransom for hostages.”

I know one Iranian-supported militia group that did not believe him. Two days before the hostages were released, and after word presumably spread about the upcoming deal, three American citizens were kidnapped in Iraq by forces supported by Iranian funds. Perhaps the timing was coincidental, or perhaps Tehran decided that it was about to give up American bargaining chips so it might as well first capture three more.

Fortunately, all three Americans were released after 31 days of captivity, but not before they were tortured severely. We have now filed suit on their behalf against Iran. But the question remains: Would these men have ever been captured if the word wasn’t out that America pays ransom for hostages?

Third, the deal sets up Iran to become a regional superpower, threatening America’s longstanding allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. With Iran’s growing military power (including the testing of ballistic missiles), its growing cyber-economy, and its plan for space travel, the rogue regime already poses a huge threat. And with its support of terrorism and destabilizing activities unchecked, it may now be able to create a Shi’ite axis extending from Iran all the way through Syria and Lebanon.

So what can be done?

The press and international community are narrowly focused on whether Iran has technically complied with the nuclear aspects of the deal. But when the president reports to Congress in October, pursuant to the Corker-Cardin law that requires his certification of Iran’s compliance, he must also certify that the suspension of sanctions under the deal is appropriate and vital to the national security interests of the United States. As U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley recently explained: “[Under Corker-Cardin] we consider the whole picture, not simply whether Iran has exceeded [the] limit on uranium enrichment. We must consider the whole jigsaw puzzle, not just one of its pieces.”

Can anyone honestly say that allowing Iran to finance terrorists, develop ballistic missile technology, and destabilize countries like Syria, is in the best interest of the United States? Why should we continue to link arms with a country whose parliament recently broke into a spontaneous chant of “Death to America” after voting to increase its military budget? For a leader who wrote The Art of the Deal, the answer should be obvious.