Ex-Pitt researcher Robert Ferrante, convicted in wife’s cyanide poisoning, seeks new trial | TribLIVE.com
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Tom Davidson

The former University of Pittsburgh researcher convicted in 2014 of poisoning his wife with cyanide is asking for a new trial.

Robert Ferrante is claiming his attorneys provided an ineffective defense, according to a petition filed July 18 in Allegheny County court.

Ferrante, 70, is serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution Houtzdale, in Clearfield County. He was found guilty of first degree murder in 2014 for lacing a nutritional drink with cyanide that killed his wife, UPMC neurologist Dr. Autumn Klein.

Klein, 41, died April 20, 2014, three days after collapsing at their home in the Schenley Farms section of Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

“We fault them for not taking an aggressive approach from the outset,” Chris Rand Eyster, the appellate lawyer representing Ferrante, said of Ferrante’s attorneys during the trial.

Ferrante was arrested that July and from the outset his attorneys, William Difenderfer and Wendy Williams, failed to provide effective representation, Eyster argued in the 32 page Post Conviction Relief Act petition.

Difenderfer hadn’t read the filing in its entirety, but said he took issue with many of the points Eyster made in it.

“Lawyers do what they have to do,” Difenderfer told the Tribune-Review. “It will come out at a hearing and needless to say, I think most of the stuff is very much exaggerated.”

Williams also wasn’t surprised at the filing or the arguments made in it.

Whenever someone is facing a life sentence it isn’t common for the trial lawyers’ work to be questioned in the interest of enacting justice, Williams said.

“We worked extremely hard. We did everything we could possibly do at the time,” she said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Ferrante waived his preliminary hearing in the case and didn’t challenge the results from the lab that tested Klein’s blood, Eyster wrote. The results changed as the case made its way through court, and the lab didn’t follow its own procedures during the testing process, he wrote.

The defense also didn’t persist to have the case heard by an outside judge or jury, Eyster wrote. He argued that was necessary because of the pre-trial publicity surrounding the case. During the course of the 12-day trial, the Allegheny County jury was not sequestered, Eyster wrote.

“The centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s case was a single blood test result generated by a non-accredited testing facility,” Eyster wrote.

The level of cyanide in Klein’s blood that was indicated by the test result was enough that it would have been immediately lethal, Eyster argued, and she wouldn’t have lived three days after ingesting it.

Klein’s organs were transplanted in others and the person who received her liver is a living testament that Klein was not poisoned, Eyster argued.

Ferrante’s appeals have thus far been denied and the recent filing is what Difenderfer termed “the final line” to dispute the conviction.

Eyster is optimistic, however.

“We’re ready to get into court and prove our claims,” Eyster said.

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