PITTSBURGH (AP) — A former medical researcher was sentenced Wednesday to a mandatory life prison sentence without possibility of parole in the cyanide poisoning death of his neurologist wife.
Robert Ferrante, 66, was convicted in November of first-degree murder, when a jury agreed with prosecutors that he laced 41-year-old Dr. Autumn Klein's energy drink with cyanide in April 2013. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, leaving Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning no choice under Pennsylvania law but to impose the life sentence in a subdued 30-minute hearing.
The victim's mother, Lois Klein, of Towson, Maryland, had planned to address the court but instead had Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini read a short statement on her behalf.
"She was our only child and the light of our lives has now been extinguished," the statement read.
Lois Klein and her husband, William, are caring for Ferrante and Autumn Klein's 8-year-old daughter. Ferrante's adult children from his first marriage — Kimberly, a physician from San Diego and Michael, a financial planner from Boston — have previously expressed interest in caring for the girl and are hoping a family court judge will grant them permission to see their half-sister now that the criminal case is over.
Ferrante declined an opportunity to make a statement to the court saying, "I have none, your honor." He had no friends or family members present.
Ferrante has steadfastly denied poisoning Klein by putting cyanide he acknowledged ordering for his University of Pittsburgh Medical Center laboratory into a creatine energy drink at their home late one night. She immediately collapsed and died three days later, authorities said.
Prosecutors showed the jury text messages in which Ferrante told Klein the drink might help her ovulate and conceive a second child, which witnesses said Klein was obsessed with having. Prosecutors said Ferrante was outwardly supportive of having another child but actually disliked the idea and feared Klein might divorce him.
Defense attorney William Difenderfer plans to appeal, saying there was no direct proof that Ferrante gave his wife cyanide and saying medical experts disagreed as to whether she was poisoned or died from a sudden heart dysrhythmia.
"This case was basically decided with experts and quite frankly, I thought at the end of the day our experts were more credible," Difenderfer said.
Ferrante, a prominent researcher into Lou Gehrig's disease, testified he bought the poison only because he used it to mimic the disease's effects on healthy cells in his lab.
He also testified that he didn't greet Klein at the couple's back door and hand her the energy drink the night she fell ill, even though police detectives said Ferrante told them that's what happened when they first interviewed him.
Jurors indicated that discrepancy and other evidence prompted them to reject his denials and convict him.
Lois Klein also has filed a wrongful death suit against Ferrante.
A settlement is being negotiated that would provide a trust fund for the girl, according to the attorneys involved.
Another judge had previously frozen Ferrante's assets, except for money he spent on his defense, in order to safeguard money for the girl.
The Kleins are in an "unimaginable" situation, said Lois Klein's attorney, John Gismondi.
"They're in the position of raising a grandchild they love under very, very difficult circumstances and then at the same time dealing with the loss of their own daughter," Gismondi said. "It's as difficult a circumstance as you can imagine."