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New evidence cited to clear Pitt researcher Ferrante of poisoning wife

| Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, 10:57 p.m.
Robert Ferrante makes his way to the courtroom for his homicide trial Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, at the Allegheny County Courthouse.
Tribune-Review
Robert Ferrante makes his way to the courtroom for his homicide trial Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Dr. Robert Ferrante, the University of Pittsburgh researcher convicted of poisoning his wife with cyanide, has asked the co-founder of a Massachusetts biosciences firm to share research that she says could show a harmful byproduct of creatine killed Autumn Marie Klein.

Carol Gebert, business director and co-founder of Worcester, Mass.-based Woodland Biosciences, says the creatine that Klein took in an attempt to increase her fertility can be metabolized and produce a false positive for cyanide poisoning in tests Quest Diagnostics and the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office used, which helped prosecutors convict Ferrante of murder.

Quest Diagnostics did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, who testified for the defense during Ferrante's trial, said it is possible for creatine to produce a false positive for cyanide.

“I don't know Gebert, her background or her qualifications, but this is something that would have to be checked out,” he said. “Creatine and its metabolites can result in false positives. ... There's a scientific basis for that.”

Gebert said she hopes to join Ferrante's appeal. But Chris Eyster, Ferrante's attorney, said he hasn't committed to including Gebert in the conviction appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

“I don't have enough information from her to ascertain whether she's going to be able to help; my client's asked her to review the case and see what she can help us with,” Eyster said. “We're not closing any doors. We'd like to find out what she has to offer.”

He said Gebert's promise to exonerate his client and her outreach may be “premature.”

Gebert said she was working on a similar case under appeal in Virginia when a fellow volunteer on the appeal mentioned Ferrante's trial.

“I am the survivor of a creatine-adverse event, years ago,” Gebert said. “I recognized it immediately.”

Gebert has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Sydney University and a doctorate from the University of New South Wales, Australia, in bioprocessing, according to the Woodland Biosciences website.

Klein, Gebert contends, died from an adverse reaction to the creatine supplements she was taking at her husband's urging; the chemicals left over in the body from those supplements then produced a similar test result to cyanide in the lab tests investigators used, she said.

“I just wish I could get his attorney to take me seriously,” Gebert said.

The National Institutes of Health do not indicate whether it is possible to fatally overdose on creatine, only that the substance might be unsafe in high doses, with concern that it could harm the kidneys, liver or heart function. No connection has been proven between high doses of creatine and those effects, nor has it been proven to affect fertility, the NIH says.

Gebert said she has been communicating with Ferrante at the state prison in Camp Hill in Cumberland County and talking to his former research co-authors to back up her research.

Eyster said that by Tuesday, he will file a more detailed statement of the errors several judges made leading up to and during Ferrante's trial last year as the basis for his appeal.

Gebert said the other case she is working on, an appeal of the 2002 murder conviction of Virginia resident Diane Fleming, involved a lab test that produced a false positive. In that case, it was for methanol in the window cleaner prosecutors said Fleming used to poison her husband. A Virginia appeals court hasn't ruled on the writ of actual innocence Gebert filed.

In Ferrante's case, Gebert said she is working on an amicus brief.

Ferrante, 66, is serving a mandatory life sentence without parole for killing his wife, a UPMC neurologist. Prosecutors said Ferrante poisoned Klein with cyanide slipped into her creatine supplements at their home April 17, 2013. She died three days later at UPMC Presbyterian.

His defense attorney at the time, William Difenderfer, had argued that creatine could produce a false positive for cyanide, but jurors chose to believe the lab technicians' results. Difenderfer could not be reached.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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