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Ruling on evidence due in case of Pitt researcher accused of fatally poisoning wife

| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Dr. Robert Ferrante, accused in the cyanide death of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein.

An Allegheny County judge will decide in the coming weeks whether investigators illegally obtained evidence against a University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of fatally poisoning his wife with cyanide.

But Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning indicated it might not matter.

Bill Difenderfer and Wendy Williams, attorneys for Dr. Robert Ferrante, claim the warrants failed to meet the standard of probable cause and the evidence was seized illegally because of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Ferrante, 65, of Schenley Farms, who is charged with one count of homicide in the death of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist. Klein died at UPMC Presbyterian on April 20, 2013, three days after being poisoned. He was in court for Thursday's hearing, wearing a dark suit and occasionally speaking with his lawyers. Deputies escorted him back to jail afterward.

Manning said even if the subpoenas were misused, all he can do is quash them. Prosecutors issue new ones to obtain the same information.

“It's troubling, but it seems to have no real remedy,” Manning said.

Difenderfer argued that prosecutors and their investigator used subpoenas as investigative tools to obtain records from Google and other companies. The subpoenas, signed by Manning while he was the court's administrative judge, went to the companies before prosecutors charged Ferrante. The subpoenas said the companies could send information to the courthouse instead of requiring a representative to appear before a judge. Noncompliance could be punished by fines or jail time, the subpoenas stated.

“There was no judge or hearing scheduled, were there?” Difenderfer asked Lyle Graber, an investigator for the district attorney's office. “You were using it to build your case.”

Graber said he did as he was told.

Rebecca Spangler, the first assistant district attorney, said that has been the practice during her 19 years in the office.

“We file between 18,000 and 20,000 criminal informations a year,” Spangler said. “In each individual case, there could be a single witness or 10 witnesses that are subpoenaed.”

Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini said Ferrante isn't permitted to fight the subpoenas served to other companies or witnesses.

Difenderfer argued that search warrants used against his client were too broad and failed to cite specific items investigators sought when searching Ferrante's office, home and car. In particular, he questioned information found on an Apple laptop computer.

“There has to be some restriction ... on what they can do when they go into a computer,” he said. “People keep their entire lives in those things.”

Prosecutors said highly educated people such as the defendant should not expect privacy when it comes to work computers or email. They cited Pitt's policy, which prohibits personal use of university-owned devices.

“We're not making the argument that he doesn't have expectations of privacy at home, in his car or other personal places,” said Assistant District Attorney Kee Song.

Duquesne University professor Wes Oliver disagreed because many companies, regardless of their computer use policy, want employees to use their business computers for personal use.

“We no longer live in a world where you work at work and you relax at home,” he said. “Any court that believes that is really sort of living in the past. Those are lingering rules that no longer make sense in practice anymore,” he said.

A jury from Dauphin County, to be selected in August, will decide Ferrante's guilt or innocence. His trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 22.

Adam Brandolph contributed to this report. Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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