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Prosecutors seek Google searches from computer of Pitt researcher accused in wife's cyanide death

| Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, 12:21 p.m.

Hours after Pittsburgh homicide detectives interviewed Robert Ferrante about the mysterious death of his wife in April, the University of Pittsburgh researcher used Google to learn whether a medical procedure doctors performed at UPMC Presbyterian would remove traces of poison in her system, search warrants unsealed on Friday show.

Investigators on Wednesday filed a search warrant with the Internet search company to confirm their findings, which they call evidence that Ferrante, 65, poisoned his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a prominent UPMC neurologist, with cyanide on April 17. She died on April 20.

Ferrante has been at the Allegheny County Jail since his arrest on July 25 in West Virginia. He pleaded not guilty to one count of homicide.

Authorities say Ferrante entered the search phrase “would ecmo or dialysis remove traces of toxins poisons” at 9:32 p.m. on April 25, according to one of five search warrants filed by Lyle M. Graber, a detective in the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

Emergency room doctors at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Oakland used a blood circulation system that performs extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, to pump Klein's blood from her body, supply it with oxygen and pump it back in, according to the criminal complaint filed in July. The complaint does not indicate if Klein's treatment included dialysis.

Witnesses told police Ferrante began speaking about his wife as if she was already dead while doctors were treating her. After she died he said he didn't think an autopsy was necessary, the complaint says. A witness told police it was strange that Ferrante talked about toxins being washed out of her blood within hours of her death.

It's difficult to say if the Google search could play an important role in the case, said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, but prosecutors will likely try to use Ferrante's subsequent actions to show intent.

“This one is very likely to be held relevant, but the defense will certainly put it in a different light,” Ledewitz said. “It's amazing how different things look when the defense has a chance to speak.”

Graber's other search warrants sought several other searches performed on Ferrante's Apple laptop computer between April 10 and May 1. One warrant wanted information from the University of Pittsburgh regarding Ferrante's access to nitropropionic acid, an uncommon toxin. Another sought access to computer hard drives the district attorney's office seized.

Dressed in a dark suit and pattern necktie, Ferrante appeared before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning on Friday, the first time he has been in court in person since his arrest. He spoke only to his attorneys, William Difenderfer and Wendy L. Williams.

Manning did not rule on a motion requesting permission from Ferrante's two adult children from a previous marriage to contact their half-sister, Cianna, 7.

Cianna has been living with her maternal grandparents, Lois and Bill Klein of Towson, Md., since Judge David Cashman issued a no-contact order in August.

He did not rule on a request to unfreeze more of Ferrante's assets. Cashman previously froze all but $280,000 of Ferrante's money.

After agreeing to comply with a request for a DNA sample, Difenderfer concluded the brief hearing by telling Manning he might request the trial be held outside the county, or that the jury pool comes from another county. A hearing on those potential motions is scheduled for Feb. 10.

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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