Blood sample in Ferrante case negative for cyanide
A test that casts doubt on how much cyanide was in the blood of a deceased UPMC neurologist could be a major break for the defense of her husband charged with her poisoning death, medical experts not involved in the case said on Tuesday.
“If you can't find the bullet, how do you prove the cause of death?” said John Trestrail, a pharmacist who taught classes on criminal poisoning at the FBI National Academy. “If you say it's the cause of death, you're going to have to be able to prove it.”
Wendy Williams, one of two lawyers for University of Pittsburgh researcher Dr. Robert Ferrante, on Tuesday told Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning that blood tests from Quest Diagnostics, which showed cyanide in Dr. Autumn Marie Klein's system, differed from the tests conduct by NMS, a Philadelphia-based forensic toxicology lab.
“In a nutshell, the blood results from NMS were negative,” Williams said.
Williams and Bill Difenderfer, who also represents Ferrante, declined to explain the results in further detail, citing a gag order in the case.
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini said Williams' characterization that there was no cyanide present in NMS' results was not accurate.
Williams is seeking Quest's operating procedures and protocols because of the disparity.
“We need it to review the testing procedures of Quest because the blood sample was tested for cyanide, when sent by the commonwealth to NMS, was negative for cyanide as a cause of death,” she said. “(We) want testing procedures and storage of Quest examined by an expert.”
Williams wants NMS to retest the samples that Quest tested to verify the accuracy of the results.
Klein, 41, died on April 20, 2013, three days after investigators say she was poisoned. Ferrante, 65, is scheduled to stand trial on Sept. 22. Lawyers in the case will select a jury from Dauphin County beginning on Sept. 8. The case will be tried in Pittsburgh.
There are several factors that could have caused different results, said Dr. James Norris, a toxicologist based in Benton, Ark., who has given expert testimony in several criminal cases.
Whether the blood samples at the two labs were from the same draw, if the time period between the collection and analysis was the same, storage conditions and the type of analysis all could be factors, Norris said. “Differences in those factors could yield contradictory results,” he said.
“The devil's going to be in the details,” said Dr. Michael J. McCabe, a forensic toxicologist in Lancaster. “The bottom line is people shouldn't have any cyanide in their blood.”
During their investigation of Klein's death, detectives searched Ferrante's home, offices at UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh, email accounts that belonged to him and Klein, computers, phones and his car. They found that Ferrante bought cyanide with a Pitt account days before his wife fell ill.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.