The Trial of Cynthia Sommer--America's Amanda Knox Case

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Cynthia Sommer
On this final day of arguments in the Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito appeals trial, a lot of Americans may be wondering how a case built on such circumstantial evidence might have come this far.

Certainly in the United States no one could be convicted based on what appears to be less an assessment of facts than an indictment of character.

That, unfortunately, is simply not the case. And one need not look back far in American judicial history to find an example.

In January 2007, Cynthia Sommer was convicted of killing her husband, a United States Marine, by poisoning him with arsenic. Sommer, a 34-year-old pretty brunette, was older than Knox, but in had many of her same traits.

After Sommer's husband died unexpectedly, Sommer wasted little time in getting breast implants, having wild parties at her house, and having sex with other men. It didn't take long for people to notice that she simply didn't fit the bill of grieving widow.

Enter San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis--an aggressive and ambitious prosecutor looking to make a name for herself. She used Sommer's promiscuous behavior and attention seeking nature as a prime point in her attack on the woman's values.

And while Dumanis wasn't able to use the kind of colorful language that's been used in Knox case, the technique worked, and Sommer was convicted of murder.

Nearly a year later, however, with Sommer coming to her appeals trial day from a prison cell, it was proved that the Marine hadn't died of poisoning after all and his wife hadn't killed him.

When Sommer got out of prison, she more or less went back to her flamboyant ways. But being flamboyant and/or promiscuous isn't illegal. And when Sommer walked free, the legal structure in San Diego County took one on the chin--but justice was served.

Yesterday I spoke with Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, a former FBI profiler and the author of a book about how preconceived notions about behavior are the enemy of discovering truth.

O'Toole talked about how people often try to rationalize violent crime by imagining what a killer looks like. Attractive females like Cynthia Sommer and Amanda Knox don't fit the typical visual mold of bloodthirsty killer. But if circumstances point to a sexual motive--in Sommer's case, the jettisoning of a straight-laced Marine husband for a party lifestyle; for Knox, some kind of "black magic" sexual fantasy--people (read: juries) often reconcile the contradiction by seeing these beautiful women as evil temptresses--a "she-devil" or "femme fatale," as prosecutor Giuliano Mignini likes to call Knox.

For both Sommer and Knox--in both American and Italian justice systems, respectively--the courts have proven that a woman's sexual and personal identity is of crucial importance in a case where character is discussed.

In the United States (at least in Sommer's case), the appellate system worked in putting fresh eyes on a case and ultimately righting a wrong.

By as early as tomorrow or Monday, we'll find out if the Italian system can do the same.

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