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Attorney for researcher accused of wife's cyanide poisoning death won't seek to move trial

| Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 12:24 p.m.
Dr. Robert Ferrante, accused in the cyanide death of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein.

A lawyer representing a University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of killing his wife with cyanide said Friday that he likely will not seek to move his client's trial outside of Allegheny County.

Attorney William Difenderfer told Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning he doesn't plan to ask to move the trial for Robert Ferrante or find a jury from outside the county.

Ferrante, 65, was not present for a pre-trial hearing with prosecutors. He remains in the Allegheny County Jail, charged with homicide in the April 20 death of UPMC neurologist Autumn Klein, 41.

“Your Honor is familiar with my belief that there's very good reasons for the defense,” Difenderfer said.

Difenderfer could not elaborate after the hearing because of a gag order in the case, but he has a track record of keeping high-profile cases within the county. Difenderfer represented mass killer Richard Baumhammers and did not seek to move that case, despite intense news media scrutiny.

He has said he believed an Allegheny County jury might be more willing to listen to a mental health defense for Baumhammers, who remains on death row for a 2001 conviction for the April 28, 2000, racially-motivated shooting spree through the South Hills and Beaver County that killed five people. A sixth person died of his injuries in 2007.

Police accuse Ferrante of lacing an energy drink with cyanide to kill his wife. Ferrante pleaded not guilty when arraigned in July and has denied involvement in her death.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said it's probably wise for the defense to have an Allegheny County jury hear the case, despite widespread publicity.

“The benefit of moving the case is that, if you have a jury from somewhere else, they're not biased because they haven't heard about it — and if there's evidence around in the newspapers that the jury won't hear, it's good to move it,” Ledewitz said.

Despite that, he said it's likely at least half the potential jury pool hasn't heard of the Ferrante case. Allegheny County jurors tend to lean more toward the defense than the statewide jury pool, he said. Educated people, Catholics, minorities, and members of labor unions tend to be more defense-oriented, Ledewitz said.

“In the universe of jurors, some groups are more likely to believe the police and some are more likely to be skeptical,” he said.

Manning set Feb. 10 to hear pretrial motions and signed an order allowing Ferrante to use a laptop while in jail to review prosecutors' evidence. Police obtained 63 search warrants in the case.

Police say 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.

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886.

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