Did This Neuroscientist Poison His Wife with Cyanide?

Inside the murder trial of a doctor who prosecutors say gave his wife cyanide

Photo: Keith Srakocic/AP

On April 15, 2013, Dr. Robert Ferrante, a medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, placed an overnight order for cyanide to be delivered to his lab. Paying with a corporate credit card, Ferrante was very specific in his request. “He said he wanted the best and the purest,” lab manager Michele Perpetua testified in court.

That much is uncontroverted. What’s unclear is what Ferrante did after receiving the chemical.

Two days after Dr. Ferrante bought the cynaide, his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, fell ill. She died three days later. Prosecution experts maintain that her symptoms were consistent with cyanide poisoning – and that she died at the hands of a husband who thought she was having an affair.

“All along, the evidence will show you that this defendant thinks he’s smarter than everyone else,” assistant district attorney Lisa Pelligrini said during opening statements. “Mr. Ferrante was one blood test and one phone call from getting away with the perfect murder.”

But the defense claims that it wasn’t a murder at all and that Dr. Klein’s symptoms were inconsistent with cyanide poisoning.

“Myself and Dr. Ferrante do not accept – and will never accept – that Autumn Klein died from orally ingesting hydrogen cyanide,” said defense attorney William Difenderfer in his opening statement. “And they can’t prove it.”

A Frantic 911 Call

During opening arguments last week, prosecutors played the 911 call placed by Dr. Ferrante on April 17. During the call, Klein was heard gasping for breath in the background. “Sweetheart. Sweetheart, I love you very much,” Ferrante said to Klein as they waited for an ambulance. “Please don’t do it. Please.”

Prosecutor Lisa Pelligrini told the jury that Klein was “gasping and groaning and moaning and dying” during the call.

Unhappy Emails

By most accounts, Ferrante and Klein had a happy marriage for several years, but things began to fall apart in 2012, when the couple began trying to have a second child. (They have a six-year-old daughter.) After some unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant, the stress was clearly showing in their relationship.

In an February 2013 email presented by the prosecution, Klein took her husband to task for being emotionally distant and uninterested in expanding their family. “I realize now I have been alone in this entire emotional journey,” she wrote. “I can’t even speak to you without getting angry.” A few days later, she wrote again. “I have written you many letters that I have not sent,” she wrote. “I don’t know where things are going to go, and you may not like what you hear, but I think it is about time we talked.”

Text Messages and Creatine

But by April 2013, things had seemingly smoothed over. Ferrante and Klein were again trying to get pregnant. In court, prosecutors presented a text message exchange that they say showed Ferrante’s attempt to poison his wife.

“I have an aura. According to my calendar I ovulate tomorrow,” Dr. Klein texted her husband at 1:05 p.m. on April 17, 2013.

“Perfect timing. Creatine.” he responded, adding a smiling emoticon. “It will make a huge difference. I am certain of it.”

About nine hours before Klein fell ill, she texted him again. “Will it stimulate egg production, too?” Ferrante responded with a smiling emoticon.

In court on Thursday, former lab worker Amanda Mihalik testified that she saw Ferrante with a Ziploc bag of creatine. “He told me he intended to give it to his wife,” she testified. She also claimed that she saw him mixing substances in a laboratory beaker. “He seemed a bit different that week,” she said. “He was acting a little bizarre.”

Inside His Defense

When the defense began their presentation on Monday, they attacked the blood tests done on Klein. Dr. Robert Middleberg, a forensic toxicologist, was the defense’s first expert witness. He testified that the toxicology results were “equivocal,” meaning they could neither prove or disprove that Klein was poisoned. The prosecution pointed out that he was being paid $5,000 to testify for the defense.

A second expert, Dr. Shaun Carstairs, testified that “it cannot really be definitively stated that Dr. Klein died of cyanide poisoning.”

Ferrante faces first degree murder charges. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence in jail.

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