Ferrante jury to come from Allegheny County, not Dauphin County
An Allegheny County jury, not one from Dauphin County, will be asked to decide whether a University of Pittsburgh researcher killed his wife, a UPMC neurologist, with cyanide.
Attorneys for Robert Ferrante, 65, withdrew their request to select the jury from outside Allegheny County. Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning on Tuesday approved their decision.
The District Attorney's Office declined to comment, citing a gag order in the case. Ferrante's attorneys did not return calls. Manning said the case did not draw the “community outrage” of others.
“Although this is a very significant case, it does not seem to me that there is compelling community outrage that we found in jury selection with Richard Baumhammers and Richard Poplawski,” said Manning, according to a transcript of Tuesday's hearing. Baumhammers killed six people in a racially motivated shooting spree, and Poplawski fatally shot three Pittsburgh police officers.
Ferrante is charged with homicide in the death of his wife, Dr. Autumn Marie Klein, 41. She died on April 20, 2013, three days after collapsing in the couple's Schenley Farms home.
Manning granted a defense request for an out-of-county jury in May, despite concern about the cost. The state Supreme Court ruled the jury would come from Dauphin County.
Legal experts not affiliated with the case said the nature of pretrial news coverage may have changed the defense attorneys' minds.
“The reason to ask for an out-of-county jury in the first place was to avoid possible bias in the jury pool here that could have resulted from a tsunami of mostly damning press coverage,” John Burkoff, a Pitt law professor, wrote in an email to the Tribune-Review.
“But, given more recent media coverage of the case reporting defense arguments about the possibility of low or no cyanide levels in his wife's blood, Ferrante's defense counsel are apparently less worried about getting a jury pool that has already prejudged their client's guilt.”
Ferrante's attorneys have said during pretrial hearings that tests conducted by NMS Labs, a Philadelphia-based forensic toxicology lab, showed “non-fatal” levels of cyanide in Klein's blood. Manning is to decide whether to allow Dr. Robert A. Middleberg, vice president of NMS Labs, to testify.
Manning's approval of the local jury suggests the judge agrees that the county can produce a fair and unbiased pool, Burkoff said. The defense's about-face has stripped Ferrante of complaining on appeal about where the jury came from, he added.
Wes Oliver, a Duquesne University Law School professor, said the defense may think that pretrial news coverage has been uniform statewide, negating any benefit Ferrante could gain from an out-of-county jury. Allegheny County jurors, familiar with the prominence and esteem of the medical community in Pittsburgh, could afford more credibility to Ferrante than jurors from a rural county in the central part of the state, he said.
Jury selection is scheduled to start Sept. 22 at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee @tribweb.com.