Trial starts for Pittsburgh professor accused of poisoning wife

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 23, 2014 7:05 PM

By Elizabeth Daley

PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - The trial of a Pittsburgh professor charged with poisoning his physician wife began on Thursday with a prosecutor saying the suspect had been one phone call away from "the perfect murder."

Dr. Robert Ferrante, 66, who taught neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, faces a homicide charge in the death of his wife, Autumn Klein, 41.

Ferrante is accused of using cyanide to poison his wife on April 17, 2013. Klein died three days later at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Presbyterian hospital, where she was chief of women's neurology.

During opening arguments, prosecutor Lisa Pellegrini said the suspected murder might have gone undetected if a doctor had not called the medical examiner after noticing that cyanide had turned up in Klein's lab tests delivered after she died.

Ferrante "was one phone call away with getting away with the perfect murder," Pellegrini told jurors in Allegheny County Court.

Pellegrini said Ferrante suspected his wife was having an affair and had ordered cyanide for his lab in the days before Klein fell ill.

But Ferrante's defense attorney, William Difenderfer, questioned whether anyone trying to murder his wife would order supplies to commit the crime through his job.

Difenderfer also said Klein's organs had been accepted for transplantation and her symptoms were inconsistent with cyanide poisoning, which is known to kill quickly.

"It's a rapid knockdown agent, you're dead within five minutes," he said.

In the month before her death, Klein had considered leaving Ferrante, calling him controlling and saying that she felt their relationship was troubled, according to a criminal complaint.

Text messages from Klein also indicated that on the day she got sick, she may have been trying to have another child with Ferrante, the complaint said.

The couple had a girl who was 6 at the time of her mother's death. Prosecutors say Klein was not in love with Ferrante but wanted her daughter to have a sibling.

Ferrante had repeatedly suggested she take the supplement creatine for fertility and he was seen tasting the substance by a witness in his lab, according to the complaint.

Paramedics saw white powder in a vial and plastic bag near Klein when they came to take her to the hospital, the complaint said. Investigators searching Ferrante's lab found a container of cyanide that was missing 8.3 grams of the white powder.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Daley; Editing by Laila Kearney and Eric Beech)