Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder
Noted University of Pittsburgh medical researcher Robert Ferrante took a deep breath but hardly flinched Friday as an Allegheny County jury convicted him of first-degree murder for poisoning his wife with cyanide, sending him to prison for the rest of his life.
The jury of eight men and four women deliberated for 15½ hours over two days before finding Ferrante, 66, guilty in the death last year of Dr. Autumn Marie Klein, 41, an accomplished UPMC neurologist.
“Justice for Autumn,” her mother, Lois Klein, declared as she got into a courthouse elevator after the jury foreman announced the verdict at 6:49 p.m. in a courtroom packed with attorneys, media and family members from both sides.
Klein collapsed April 17, 2013, in the couple's Oakland home and died three days later in UPMC Presbyterian. Ferrante maintained his innocence throughout.
Klein's parents sat in the first row of the courtroom, less than 10 feet from their son-in-law. Lois Klein, who testified during the trial, shook her hands up and down after the verdict.
Ferrante declined to answer a reporter's questions outside the courtroom as he shuffled back to his holding cell in a gray suit and shackles with his head down, escorted by sheriff's deputies. His daughter, Kimberly Ferrante, 34, mouthed, “I love you” as deputies led him past.
The District Attorney's Office released a statement on the Klein family's behalf thanking prosecutors, police and the jury for their work.
“While we are pleased that the person responsible for Autumn's death has been brought to justice, nothing will ever fill the emptiness that we feel in our family and in our hearts. Our daughter was not only in the prime of her life, but also in the prime of a promising medical career.
“She had such enthusiasm for living and working, and now we are left to ask how many lives she would have made more comfortable and productive had she been able to live her own life,” the statement read in part.
Ferrante and his wife had a daughter together, Cianna, who is 7 and in the custody of her grandparents, the Kleins, police said.
Defense attorney William Difenderfer said Ferrante and his family were devastated.
“We're obviously very, very, very disappointed. It was a very hard fought case, and we really worked extremely hard on the defense, and I think we at a minimum established very clear reasonable doubt,” Difenderfer said.
Three jurors, speaking to reporters after the verdict, said they rejected the defense's medical experts, including famed Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, who testified that it was unclear Klein died from cyanide. Ultimately, they rejected Ferrante, who testified in his defense.
“For me, when you start putting everything together, there is not one single thing,” said Juror No. 6, Lance DeWeese, 30, of Green Tree. “There is a multitude of things that pinpoint that he's guilty.”
Two jurors wiped tears from their eyes after the verdict was read. A third was visibly upset.
Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning scheduled sentencing, only a formality, for Feb. 4. The law requires life in prison with no chance of parole for first-degree murder convictions.
“I'm sure there will be appeals filed,” Difenderfer said.
Before he dismissed the jurors, Manning told them that they got to hear one of the most “outstanding,” “incredible” and “striking” cases over which he had presided.
In the end, the jury believed Assistant District Attorneys Lisa Pellegrini and Kevin Chernosky, who said the ALS medical researcher, in anger and suspicion, slipped his wife a lethal dose of cyanide, believing no one would ever think to test for the toxin. One emergency room doctor did.
Pellegrini declined to comment afterward but said multiple times during the trial that Ferrante “was one blood test away from the perfect murder.”
She laid out a trail of evidence leading to Ferrante, including Internet searches for “cyanide poisoning,” his purchase of the fatal poison two days before his wife collapsed, and a test that showed a lethal amount of the substance in his wife's blood. She painted him as a jealous husband, suspicious that his wife was cheating on him as evidenced by his Internet searches about cheating spouses.
Ferrante told the jury that he didn't have anything to do with his wife's ingesting cyanide and said he would “never” physically harm her. Instead, he said, he and his wife were “like peas in a pod.”
“We thought alike, did everything alike. We worked together very, very closely, not only at home, but at work,” Ferrante testified Wednesday.
Difenderfer said he thought the jury gave a lot of weight to the Internet searches.
“I would assume the spin on the Google searches, the computer searches, were what would have been one of the strong things the jury considered,” Difenderfer said. “I thought Cyril Wecht's testimony and our medical experts quite frankly won the day, so to convict on just Google searches and interpretations, to me, I have a very hard time swallowing that in a case of this magnitude.”
Pellegrini also built her case on positive cyanide tests found in Klein's blood — one by Quest Diagnostics in Chantilly, Va., and one by the county Medical Examiner's Office.
The Medical Examiner's Office said cyanide was present in Klein's blood but could not say whether it was a fatal level because it lacks the equipment necessary to measure the amount. Only the Quest result, with a reported level of 2.2 milligrams per liter, could pinpoint a lethal level. That result was the subject of much discussion in the trial because a Quest supervisor erroneously changed the result to 3.4 milligrams per liter and had to later correct the error.
Adam Brandolph and Bobby Kerlik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Brandolph at 412-391-0927 or [email protected]. Reach Kerlik at 412-320-7886 or [email protected]. Staff writer Aaron Aupperlee contributed.