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Pitt researcher accused of killing wife with cyanide will stand trial for homicide

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 11:00 a.m.
Dr. Robert Ferrante, accused in the cyanide death of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein.
Submitted
Dr. Autumn Marie Klein collapsed on April 17, 2013, and died three days later with a lethal concentration of cyanide in her system.

Either prosecutors offered Robert Ferrante something in exchange for waiving his preliminary hearing, or the attorney representing the University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of fatally poisoning his wife with cyanide has all the information he needs to go to trial, legal experts said on Friday.

“It's interesting that he chose to waive it,” said Duquesne University law professor Wesley Oliver. “The usual protocol is you want to have the preliminary hearing to learn everything you can about the case, unless the prosecution is going to give you something for not putting them through the work.”

Ferrante, 64, is accused of lacing an energy drink with cyanide to kill his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a prominent UPMC neurologist who died April 20. He is being held at Allegheny County Jail without bond.

Defendants have the right to waive their preliminary hearing at any time, Oliver said. Preliminary hearings generally establish that there's enough probable cause that the defendant committed the crimes for which he or she is accused, and it's an early method of discovery in criminal cases, he said.

Ferrante on Friday waived the single charge of homicide against him at a closed hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman. He scheduled a formal arraignment for Nov. 6.

Ferrante's defense attorney, William Difenderfer, did not return calls. He previously said his client “adamantly” denies killing his wife. Cashman imposed a gag order on attorneys in the case.

“I can only speculate, but one of the things (Difenderfer) may be thinking is that he pretty much knows the prosecution's case, that it's no real mystery to him,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. “If that's true, then why go through with this because if you do, it exposes your client to media attention.

“Sometimes, preliminary hearings are waived because the prosecution and defense are having some discussion about plea arrangements and there may be no necessity for the hearing.”

Police said Ferrante bought cyanide with a Pitt credit card on April 15 and had it shipped overnight to his laboratory. He called 911 on April 17 to report that Klein collapsed at the couple's home in Schenley Farms; paramedics found her unresponsive on the kitchen floor. She died three days later in UPMC Presbyterian.

Pitt placed Ferrante on indefinite leave shortly after police filed the charge.

Oliver said it's possible Difenderfer received something he would not otherwise have been entitled to — from visits for Ferrante with his daughter, Cianna, 6, to evidence in the case. Cashman placed the child in the custody of Klein's parents, Lois, 78, and Bill Klein, 76, of Towson, Md.

“There could be all kinds of trades going on here. But if there's a real defense here, unless there's something substantial offered in exchange for a waiver of hearing, I always question what the strategy is,” he said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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