PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jurors heard from prosecution and defense attorneys — and then from the dying woman herself — as the homicide trial began Thursday for a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher charged with poisoning his neurologist wife.
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini told the jury that 41-year-old Dr. Autumn Klein can be heard "gasping and groaning and moaning and dying" on the 911 call placed by her husband, Dr. Robert Ferrante, on April 17.
During the call, Klein's tortured breaths and moans were sometimes louder than Ferrante's pleas to the emergency dispatcher.
"Sweetheart, sweetheart, I love you very much," Ferrante is heard saying to Klein while waiting for an ambulance. "Please don't do it, please."
The 66-year-old researcher's attorney, William Difenderfer, told the jury that Ferrante didn't poison his wife and that the prosecution's medical experts "are not going to even prove that she died of cyanide poisoning."
He suggested her death was unexplained, but may have been related to a fainting disorder the defense claims Klein had, which the prosecution disputes, or perhaps from drugs she took from her "almost obsession" to have another child.
"The defense in this case does not accept and will never accept that Autumn Klein died from ingesting hydrogen cyanide," Difenderfer told the jury. Pellegrini told the jury that Ferrante killed Klein with potassium cyanide, a solid substance that can be dissolved in liquids. Hydrogen cyanide is a gas, and was used by the Nazis to kill Jews during the Holocaust. Afterward, Difenderfer declined to discuss the differing language.
The jury heard the frantic — and at times ghastly — 911 call from the first witness to testify, a county emergency dispatcher, in what's expected to be a three-week trial.
Ferrante sighed, looked upward and rubbed his eyes as the recording was played.
Prosecutors are seeking life in prison.
Pellegrini contends Ferrante laced his wife's creatine energy drink with cyanide that he bought with a university-issued credit card after telling her the drink would help them conceive another child. Their daughter, Cianna, was 6 when her mother fell suddenly ill. She died three days later.
Pittsburgh police have said in court papers that Ferrante suspected Klein was having an affair and was, at the same time, pressuring Ferrante to have another child.
Klein was "unhappy in her marriage" and "she desperately wanted another child, not so much because she was in love with the defendant, but because she was also the only child of older parents," Pellegrini told the jury.
The prosecutor said Ferrante, meanwhile, was becoming jealous of Klein's male friend and did computer searches on topics ranging from how to determine whether a spouse was cheating to cyanide poisoning.
"He Googles everything," Pellegrini said.
Difenderfer, however, said there was an innocent explanation for the cyanide searches: Ferrante's research into the causes of Lou Gehrig's disease centered on the way cells were attacked by toxins. The defense contends cyanide was one such substance, though police and prosecutors have said they determined cyanide wasn't related to Ferrante's research.
Pellegrini contends Ferrante outsmarted even himself with two computer searches. One was about whether methods used to treat Klein in the days before she died would have removed cyanide in her system. The other was, "How do you get rid of your Web history?" Pellegrini said.
"All along the evidence will show you he thinks he's smarter than anybody else."