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Researcher accused of murder by cyanide won't face death penalty

| Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, 10:24 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Robert Ferrante, 64, of Schenley Farms, signs a waiver of extraction with public defender Marcia Hebb (right) during his extradition hearing at Raleigh County Circuit Court in Beckley, WV on Monday, July 29, 2013. Ferrante, a visiting professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, was taken into custody by West Virginia police on the previous Thursday after Allegheny County Prosecutor's Office issued a warrant for his arrest in relation to the death of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein. Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist, was found unresponsive in the home she shared with Ferrante and their 6-year-old daughter
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Dr. Autumn Marie Klein collapsed on April 17, 2013, and died three days later with a lethal concentration of cyanide in her system.

The University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of killing his wife with cyanide won't face the death penalty when the case goes to trial, the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office decided.

Robert Ferrante, 65, remains in the Allegheny County Jail without bail. He is scheduled to appear at a formal arraignment on Wednesday.

Police accused Ferrante of lacing an energy drink with cyanide to kill his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a prominent UPMC neurologist who died on April 20.

On Monday, his attorney, Bill Difenderfer, filed a motion to allow a private detective to visit his client in jail. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for Thursday, court records show. Difenderfer did not return calls.

Ferrante pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned on a homicide charge on July 30. He has denied involvement in his wife's death.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala could not be reached for comment.

Pennsylvania law requires prosecutors to determine whether aggravating factors exist to justify pursuing the death penalty.

Those factors include torture; that a murder occurred during the commission of certain felonies; the victim was younger than 12; the murder of a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy; the victim was a government employee; or a murder was committed against a person held as a shield, as a hostage or for ransom.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman has imposed a gag order in the case. The judge froze all but $280,000 of Ferrante's assets and placed his daughter, Cianna, 6, with her grandparents, Bill and Lois Klein of Towson, Md.

Ferrante, a leading researcher of the neurological disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, spent more than 20 years at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He and Klein met while she was a student where he worked at the VA Hospital in Bedford, Mass.

The University of Pittsburgh placed Ferrante on indefinite leave shortly after police filed charges.

Police said Ferrante bought cyanide with a Pitt credit card on April 15 and had it shipped to his laboratory. On April 17, he called 911 to say Klein collapsed at home. Paramedics found her unresponsive on the kitchen floor. She died three days later.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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