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Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Dr. Robert Ferrante Poison Murder Case

     In 2013, Dr. Robert Ferrante and his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, lived with their 6-year-old daughter in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ferrante held the positions of co-director of the Center of ALS Research, and visiting professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Dr. Klein, with offices in Magee-Woman's Hospital in the Kaufman Medical Building, was chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh.

     Dr. Ferrante, twenty-three years older than his wife, met her in 2000 when they lived in Boston where she was a medical student and he worked at a hospital for veterans. They were married a year later. In 2010, Dr. Ferrante left his job at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital to join the University of Pittsburgh's neurological surgery team. Dr. Klein moved to Pittsburgh with him.

     Dr. Klein, who was forty-one, was having difficulty getting pregnant with her second child. Her 64-year-old husband had been encouraging her to take a nutritional supplement to help her conceive. On April 17, 2013, Dr. Ferrante sent Autumn a text message in which he inquired if she had taken the supplement. She wrote back: "Will it stimulate egg production, too?" Nine hours after Dr. Klein sent that message, she collapsed in the kitchen of the couple's Schenley Farms home.

     Emergency personnel rushed Dr. Klein to the University of Pittsburgh Medial Center (UPMC) in Oakland. On the kitchen floor next to her body, paramedics noticed a bag of white powder later identified as creatine, a nutritional supplement. Shortly after the patient was admitted into the hospital, a UPMC doctor ordered tests of her blood. When a preliminary serological analysis revealed a high level of acid, the doctor ordered toxicolgical tests for cyanide poisoning.

     Dr. Klein died on April 20, 2013. Three days later, at Dr. Ferrante's insistence, her body was cremated. As a result, there was no autopsy.

     Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, based on the toxicology reports, determined that Dr. Klein had died of cyanide poisoning. The forensic pathologist ruled her death a homicide.

     Cyanide kills by starving the cells of oxygen. A lethal dose for a human can be as small as 200 milligrams--1/25th the size of a nickel. The poison acts fast and metabolizes quickly. The toxic substance can be undetectable from one minute to three hours after ingestion. Had samples of Dr. Klein's blood not been taken upon her admission to UPMC, there would have been no physical evidence of poisoning beyond the contents of the bag of white powder found lying on the victim's kitchen floor.

     Two weeks after Dr. Klein's death, detectives with the Pittsburgh Police Department launched a homicide investigation with Dr. Ferrante as the prime suspect. Officials at UPMC placed the neurologist on leave and denied him access to his laboratory. A police search of the lab resulted in the discovery that 8.3 grams from a bottle of cyanide was missing. Detectives learned that Dr. Ferrante had purchased a half-pound of the poison on April 15, 2013, two days before his wife collapsed in their home. Dr. Ferrante had used a UPMC credit card to buy the cyanide and had asked the vendor to ship it to his lab overnight. Detectives believed the suspect, in his laboratory, mixed the cyanide--a substance not related to his work--into the dietary supplement.

     According to friends of the victim, Dr. Ferrante had been a controlling husband who was jealous of his wife's fast-rising career. Moreover, he suspected that she was having an affair with a man from Boston. Dr. Klein had told friends she was planning to leave the doctor. Another possible motive involved the fact Dr. Ferrante did not want his wife to have another child.

     On April 13, four days before she fell ill, Dr. Klein sent one of her friends a text message regarding a trip she planned to take to Boston by herself. In that message she wrote: "Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me 'to keep me out of trouble.'"

     "Oh, dear," replied the friend. "Did you know you were in trouble?"

     "I feel like I have been in trouble for a long time now," Dr. Klein answered.

     On July 24, 2013, an Allegheny County prosecutor charged Dr. Robert Ferrante with first-degree murder. The next day, as Dr. Ferrante drove back to Pittsburgh from St. Augustine, Florida, a West Virginia state patrol officer arrested him on I-77 near Beckley. According to the doctor's attorney, William Difenderfer, his client was on his way to surrender to the Pittsburgh police.

     Dr. Ferrante's arrest for the murder of his wife caused him serious financial problems. Except for $280,000 the suspect was allowed to use for legal expenses and a possible fine, a judge seized his assets. In August 2013, his 6-year-old daughter's maternal grandmother who was caring for the girl in Maryland, petitioned a family court judge for child support.

     The Ferrante murder trial got underway on October 20, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following jury selection, the attorneys for each side presented their opening statements. Assistant Allegheny County District Attorney Lisa Pelligrini asserted that the defendant had murdered his wife because she wanted to have a second child. The prosecutor also said that Dr. Ferrante thought his wife was having an affair.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer pointed out the circumstantial nature of the prosecution's case, inconsistent crime toxicology reports regarding cyanide in Dr. Klein's blood, and an absence of an autopsy.

     Dr. Christopher Holstege, a University of Virginia professor and the author of the text, Criminal Poisoning, Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, took the stand as the prosecutor's key expert witness. Dr. Holstege testified that the victim's symptoms ruled out everything but cyanide poisoning.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer put three forensic experts on the stand. Dr. Robert Middleberg, vice president of a private crime lab in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, said tests at his facility of Dr. Klein's blood were inconclusive.

     Dr. Middleberg's testimony was backed up by Dr. Shaun Carstairs of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht. Dr. Wecht, a forensic pathologist, had testified in dozens of celebrated murder cases around the world.

     As his last witness, Diffenderfer, in a surprise and risky move, put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf. As could have been anticipated, the prosecutor's blistering cross examination revealed numerous inconsistencies in Dr. Ferrante's statements to the authorities.

     On Friday November 7, 2014, the jury found Dr. Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder, an offense in Pennsylvania that came with a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

     Through his appellate attorney Chris Eyster, Robert Ferrante appealed his conviction on the ground that the prosecution had not had sufficient probable cause for the search warrant that produced evidence that incriminated his client. The lawyer also raised questions regarding the laboratory that concluded that the victim had been killed by poison.

     In September 2016, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning upheld the Ferrante conviction.
     

18 comments:

  1. Excelente artículo. Soy pediatra y me apasionó esta historia desde sus inicios. Si no hubiera sido por a sagacidad del medico de guardia, probablemente, este asesinato hubiera quedado imputa.

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  2. The cyanide was a false positive. Ketoacidosis from kidney failure generate amines that cross-react with the reagents used to detect cyanide. Mayo just issued an announcement called that cyanide method obsolete.

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    1. No the test was validated and there wasn't enough timw for that to happen anyway.

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    2. Garbage - The test was never "validated." The diagnostic lab does not even run the positive control properly. They dissolve it in water, when it should be dissolved in blood. The test is flawed and according to Mayo "obsolete."

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  3. I have now identified three cyanide false positives. When people must realize is that these tests do not measure cyanide. They measure color change from a chemical reaction. If the chemical reaction is specific, then the color reflects the analyte. However, all these colorimetric cyanide tests cross-react with other things like amines, nitrites and even glutathione. If you examine the details, then this case is clearly one of a false positive and a wrongful conviction.

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    1. Don't like facts eh?

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    2. She had NO cyanosis on her face or extremities, no stomach bleeding, no lung frothing, no swift death. No cyanide symptoms at all! If she took cyanide she must have taken a very, very small quantity. Meanwhile, Quest measured 2.2mg/L a full 16hrs after the supposed ingestion. Recall that cyanide has a half-life measured in minutes, so this sample was about 100 half-lives later. The measurement is therefore impossible. A clear false positive. The medical examiner should have known better. This is almost willful negligence on the part of Pittsburgh prosecutors. They should be ashamed of themselves.

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    3. Wrong it doesn't matter what half life it had. All drugs have half lives. That means there could neverbe a valid test for drugs.

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    4. The half-life matters VERY much, since it is used to calculate the dose consumed. The sample measuring 2.2 mg/L was taken a full 15 hrs after she supposedly ingested it, which is 50-100 half-lives later. This alone proves the reading to the false. No cyanide would be detected after just two hours. Instead, the main metabolite thiocyanate should be detected within minutes. However, all the thiocyanate tests came back negative. Thus, the pharmacology proves that the reading was a false positive.

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  4. Cyanide murder mystery in Midlothian,Texas...https://www.facebook.com/RockEmMemorialPage/
    http://www.chriserick.com/evidence

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  5. Somehow I can't imagine Cyril Wecht missing that.

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    1. Cyril Wecht does not know anything about pharmacology or metabolism.

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    2. Cyril Wecht testified that the cyanide data made no sense, but the lawyer did not encourage him to explain why or to describe the anomaly. The jury did not realize that all experts must agree and so just picked the expert they liked the best. And that is how science was subverted by archaic court procedures, and how an innocent man was convicted.

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  6. Posts (and the info they contain) made by "Anonymous" authors have as much credibility as a doctor who would murder his wife.

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    1. You should do what scientists do: Ignore the person and follow the science. Please try to learn what "half-life" and "metabolite" mean. Then you can rely on logic instead of opinion.

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    2. After you learn those basic concepts and the math, then read this paper: https://academic.oup.com/jat/article/38/4/218/834049/Cyanide-Toxicokinetics-The-Behavior-of-Cyanide

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