Lab tech: Dead doctor's blood had 'lethal' poison

AP News
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Posted: Oct 29, 2014 3:31 PM

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A neurologist who died after suddenly falling ill had a "very, very high" level of cyanide in her blood, a lab technician testified Wednesday at the criminal homicide trial for her husband, a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher.

The technician, Sonia Obcemea, also testified that the test on Dr. Autumn Klein's blood was the first cyanide test Obcemea had done that revealed a "lethal" level of the poison — out of more than 1,000 such tests in her 37-year career.

Obcemea, a technician at a Quest Diagnostics' lab, was the second witness to testify Wednesday in the fifth day of the trial of Dr. Robert Ferrante.

The 66-year-old researcher is charged with lacing a creatine drink to poison Klein after telling her the energy supplement would help them conceive another child. The couple had a 6-year-old daughter when Klein fell suddenly ill in the kitchen of their Pittsburgh home just before midnight on April 17, 2013.

Previous witnesses testified that Ferrante ordered an overnight shipment of cyanide to his research lab two days earlier, even though Allegheny County prosecutors contend the toxin wasn't typically used in his research. Klein died three days later.

The Quest Diagnostics test was done on blood drawn while Klein was being treated at the hospital and was returned to her doctors five days after she died and after Ferrante had already had her body cremated.

Ferrante has denied killing his wife and plans to call medical experts to dispute that she was poisoned. His attorneys also contend cyanide was related to his research on Lou Gehrig's disease, in that it could be used in his lab to mimic the cell death caused by the neurological disease.

Defense attorneys William Difenderfer and Wendy Williams were also expected to contest the accuracy of the Quest results, noting that the blood-testing company first reported a much higher level of cyanide in Klein's blood than Obcemea actually found. Obcemea's test showed Klein had 2.2 milligrams per liter of poison in her blood, more than double the level known to be lethal. But Quest first reported the even higher level of 3.4 milligrams per liter cited in a criminal complaint city police used to arrest Ferrante in July 2013.

Ryan Bartolotti, another technician who reviewed Obcemea's work, said he was responsible for the incorrect first report by confusing numbers on a graph used to calculate the results.

Difenderfer also tried to suggest on cross-examination that the test was flawed because Obcemea didn't test certain control samples — liquids with a known concentration of cyanide — in the order dictated by the company's standard operating procedures. Bartolotti agreed that happened, but stood by the test results.

Difenderfer also noted another notation on Obcemea's report, which referred to the results in deciliters instead of liters. But Bartolotti said the numbers were "equivalent" amounts, essentially expressing the results in different ways that have the same value, such as one-third and three-ninths.

Dr. Leslie Edinboro, the science director of the lab, also testified Wednesday. He said Obcemea's findings were sound and that the error was in the reporting, not the test itself.