PITTSBURGH (AP) — Nobody had any reason to question why a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher bought more than a half-pound of cyanide with his school-issued credit card, until his neurologist wife suddenly fell ill and died a few days later.
Now Dr. Robert Ferrante — a leading researcher on Lou Gehrig's disease — is set to go on trial in the April 2013 death of his wife, who authorities said was poisoned by a cyanide-laced energy drink.
Ferrante, through his attorneys, has maintained he had nothing to do with his wife's death and remains "devastated" by it. But detectives also contend someone used Ferrante's computer days after Klein died to learn whether treatments she received after falling ill would have removed poison from her system.
The homicide trial scheduled to begin with jury selection Tuesday in Pittsburgh figures to be a battle of medical experts.
"If the defense doesn't have some credible medical evidence to dispute the prosecution's evidence, they're in pretty bad shape," said law professor John Burkoff, who's been monitoring the case.
Ferrante, 65, was a leading researcher into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when his wife, Dr. Amber Klein, 41, — herself chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — fell ill on April 17, 2013, and died three days later. Ferrante had Klein's body cremated shortly after her death.
Ferrante was charged three months later, after tests on blood drawn from Klein at the hospital found cyanide, the same poison police learned Ferrante had bought two days before she collapsed, even though detectives found the toxin wasn't related to his research.
"The biggest thing that makes me curious is what expert testimony the defense will have on the cyanide evidence," Burkoff said. "If you find there's a substantial amount of cyanide in her system, and that he had access to cyanide, well, that's pretty much it."
The defense has hired former Allegheny County coroner Cyril Wecht, an 83-year-old forensic pathologist who has previously consulted in nationally famous cases including the deaths of JonBenet Ramsey and Elvis Presley, among others.
The prosecution will counter with lesser-known experts, including Christopher Holstege, a toxicology specialist who will narrate an animated presentation on how sounds on a 911 call — which Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini contends are Klein's gasps for air as her husband called for an ambulance — dovetail with cyanide poisoning.
"The prosecution will use everything it's allowed to use to cross-examine Ferrante's expert," Burkoff said.
That could mean questioning Wecht about one notable death he initially got wrong: that of former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long.
Long was just 45 when he was found unconscious in his suburban Pittsburgh home and died a short time later in June 2005. Wecht, then still the county coroner, called a news conference to trumpet findings that Long died from brain swelling brought on by repeated head injuries from his football days. But toxicology tests later determined that Long — who tried to kill himself by swallowing rat poison when he failed a steroid test as a player 14 years earlier — had actually committed suicide from drinking antifreeze.
Wecht's office quietly filed an amended death certificate that October — a month after the news conference — which wasn't discovered by Pittsburgh-area media outlets until early 2006.
"That would seem to be a prime example" of something Pellegrini could use to challenge Wecht, Burkoff said.
But the trial strategies for both sides can only be guessed at from pretrial motions and arguments. A gag order means the attorneys and witnesses can't comment outside the courtroom at least until a verdict is rendered.
What few sordid details have emerged are detailed in a criminal complaint which shows Klein may have been trying to get pregnant by Ferrante when she died. Detectives believe Ferrante nonetheless suspected his wife was having an affair with a man to whom she complained Ferrante was controlling and unsupportive of her job or their daughter, who was 6 when Klein died.
Despite that, Klein — herself an only child — wanted a second child and exchanged text messages about how the energy supplement creatine could help them conceive hours before police say Ferrante laced it with cyanide, according to a police complaint.
"Will it stimulate egg production too?" Klein said in one text.
Court documents say Ferrante responded with a smiling emoticon.