Researcher sued in cyanide killing of his wife

AP News
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Posted: Nov 14, 2014 3:29 PM

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The family of a neurologist who died after drinking a cyanide-laced energy drink is suing the woman's husband, a former University of Pittsburgh researcher who was convicted of killing her.

Attorney John Gismondi said he filed the wrongful death lawsuit Friday on behalf of Lois Klein, the victim's mother, who lives in Towson, Maryland.

A jury last week convicted 66-year-old Dr. Robert Ferrante in the April 2013 death of Dr. Autumn Klein, 41. He faces sentencing on Feb. 4, a formality since his conviction carries an automatic life prison term.

The lawsuit is being filed so Ferrante's assets — estimated during his criminal trial at $2.5 million — can be used to compensate the couple's 7-year-old daughter and Klein's family, Gismondi said.

"We need to take legal steps to protect the daughter," Gismondi told The Associated Press. "We don't know what his assets are at this point. Whatever he does have ought to go to the daughter and to the family of Autumn Klein."

Ferrante doesn't have a civil defense attorney listed on the suit filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. His criminal attorney, William Difenderfer, said the lawsuit "doesn't surprise me because (Gismondi) has been involved in the case since the beginning." Gismondi regularly attended the criminal trial, which lasted more than two weeks.

Ferrante previously was given court permission to use his assets for his criminal defense, and it's not clear how much he has spent. Difenderfer suggested Ferrante has little remaining wealth to go after and said his focus was on appealing Ferrante's criminal conviction.

In a separate development Friday, the Allegheny County district attorney's office filed a motion asking a judge to require that Ferrante account for his assets. The DA is doing that because prosecutors may seek restitution as part of Ferrante's sentence, and because records indicate Ferrante has transferred some assets to his two adult children from his first marriage.

Among other things, the DA wants Ferrante to account for 15 bank, checking, investment and retirement accounts that were controlled by himself or his wife before her death and a baseball bat autographed by Lou Gehrig. Ferrante's research concerned finding a cure for the disease that killed the ballplayer.

Gismondi contends the Klein and Ferrante's young daughter are entitled to those assets because the criminal conviction "conclusively establishes that Robert J. Ferrante is legally responsible for the death of Autumn Klein."

As such, Gismondi contends the couple's daughter, Cianna — who lives with Klein's parents — is due damages for the loss of Klein's continued economic support, the loss of her mother's companionship and parentage, and any medical expenses the child may incur due to that trauma. The Kleins are entitled to unspecified damages for their daughter's lost wages and earning capacity as well as damages for Autumn Klein's "pain, suffering and mental anguish."

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages "because the act of defendant Ferrante in killing his wife by poisoning constitutes outrageous conduct that was done with wanton disregard for her well-being and with an evil motive toward her."

At the criminal trial, the jury sided with county prosecutors who said Ferrante ordered cyanide using a university-issued charge card and laced an energy drink he gave Klein. Text messages from the night Klein fell ill show Ferrante suggested the drink would help Klein conceive another child, which her family and friends said Klein desperately sought.

Ferrante denied poisoning Klein — and disputed whether that caused her death at all — and his attorneys argued Ferrante ordered the cyanide because it could be used in stem-cell research related to Lou Gehrig's disease.