A former University of Pittsburgh medical researcher wants a new trial in the cyanide poisoning of his neurologist wife claiming, among other things, that a lab test confirming a lethal level of the poison in her blood was suspect.
Robert Ferrante’s appeals brief filed in Superior Court on Wednesday was first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which objected when the initial appeal was filed under seal in February. The court agreed the filing was in the public interest and last month ordered defense attorney Chris Rand Eyster to file a new brief within 14 days.
Ferrante, 68, is serving life in prison without parole after being convicted of first-degree murder in November 2014. Allegheny County prosecutors contend Ferrante killed Dr. Autumn Klein, 41, by putting cyanide in her energy drink in 2013, which text messages show he urged her to drink to enhance her fertility.
Klein collapsed and fell suddenly ill – she could be heard gasping for air in the background as Ferrante called 911 for an ambulance – on April 17, 2013. She died three days later.
Ferrante’s attorney contests the reliability of Quest Diagnostics lab results that concluded Klein was poisoned. The defense also argues 89 search warrants were overly broad and the case lacked enough evidence to convict Ferrante.
“We believe that the claims being raised in the appeal have no merit,” Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said Thursday.
Eyster filed the initial appeal brief under seal, arguing that it would violate an earlier court order protecting Quest’s standard operating procedures from public view. Eyster was ordered to redact any such information in the new brief.
The defense attorney contends the prosecutor’s office didn’t reveal that a Quest subsidiary, the Nichols Institute, paid a $40 million fine for a 2009 federal misbranding conviction and $241 million more to settle related litigation. In that case, federal prosecutors contend Quest/Nichols sold misbranded tests to various laboratories that were unreliable in measuring parathyroid hormone levels in patients.
Eyster argued that information could have been used to impeach the credibility of the Quest results, which Ferrante’s previous defense attorney repeatedly attacked at trial.
“The cause of death determination depended on whether the Quest result was reliable,” Eyster wrote.
Ferrante and his trial attorneys argued Klein suffered cardiac arrhythmia or some kind of brain abnormality relating to headaches and fainting spells she had suffered in the previous months. They acknowledged he ordered cyanide in the weeks before her death, but said Ferrante, who was a well-known researcher into Lou Gehrig’s disease, used the poison to mimic the disease’s symptoms in lab animals.
Prosecutors focused on evidence suggesting Klein was pressuring Ferrante to have another child, which they contend he didn’t want. The couple, married in 2001, had a 6-year-old daughter when Klein died, and prosecutors noted Ferrante had texted Klein to suggest the energy drink might help them conceive.
Other testimony showed someone used Ferrante’s computers to search for information on cyanide poisoning in the weeks before Klein died and, after she died but before he was arrested, on how a coroner might detect the poison.
An autopsy didn’t detect the cyanide, but Quest’s post-mortem test on Klein’s blood – which had been drawn to treat her while she was still alive – showed lethal levels of the poison.