Outside jury to decide fate of Pitt researcher accused of poisoning wife

| Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 12:37 p.m.

Jurors from outside Allegheny County will decide whether a University of Pittsburgh researcher poisoned his wife with cyanide, a judge ruled on Tuesday, despite his trepidation about the cost.

Attorneys for Dr. Robert Ferrante, 65, requested that a jury from elsewhere hear the case because of the news attention it has attracted.

Prosecutors accuse Ferrante of fatally poisoning his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist, on April 17, 2013. Paramedics found Klein in the couple's Schenley Farms home. She died in UPMC Presbyterian three days later.

“The court is reluctant to do so because of the substantial cost,” said Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning. “Although I may be loath to do so, I will grant the motion.”

Manning's decision was issued moments after he tallied the results of his third and final test to determine whether potential jurors had heard about the case and whether they had made up their minds about Ferrante's guilt or innocence. Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini did not object.

Of 79 people polled, 44 indicated they read or heard something about the case. Thirty-two of those said they had formed an opinion on Ferrante's guilt or innocence.

Last week, 50 of 67 people said they heard or read something about the case, and 35 of the 50 said they had an opinion. In February, 36 of 78 people said they heard about the case; 13 of 36 said they had formed an opinion.

“Judge Manning really did his due diligence with this,” said Pitt law professor John Burkoff, who is not involved with the case. “He kept checking with jury panels to see how many of them were aware of this case, and even more importantly, how many reached their own decision.

“I know he was surprised, and frankly, I was surprised, too.”

Legal experts said judges are hesitant to permit juries from outside their counties to hear cases, primarily because of costs associated with lodging, travel and meals for a trial's duration.

The Dauphin County jury that sent Richard Poplawski to death row for killing three Pittsburgh police officers in June 2011 cost the county nearly $90,000, including $10,348 in overtime for court employees; $2,410 to take the jury to and from Harrisburg; $29,241 to house the jurors in the DoubleTree, Downtown; and $9,371 for meals.

“Any judge would have leaned toward not doing this if you could, but you also have to give Ferrante a fair trial,” Burkoff said.

Manning said he will ask the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to pick a county from which lawyers can select a jury. The judge, his staff and attorneys in the case will travel there to do so in late August. The jurors will be transported to Pittsburgh for the trial, which is scheduled to begin on Sept. 22 and is expected to last about two weeks.

Douglas Keene, a trial consultant based in Austin, said courts generally are reluctant to spend money because budgets are tight.

The county court's budget is $67.8 million this year.

Keene applauded Manning for testing the jury pool.

“I admire his dedication to making sure this guy gets a fair trial, even though it's going to be an expensive proposition,” Keene said.

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

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