PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – After hours of deliberations over a two-day period, a jury found Dr. Robert Ferrante, the University of Pittsburgh medical researcher accused of poisoning and killing his wife with cyanide, guilty of first-degree murder.
Ferrante, who hung his head when the verdict was read in court Friday evening, now faces a mandatory life sentence in the April 2013 death of 41-year-old neurologist Dr. Autumn Klein. His sentencing is set for Feb. 4.
KDKA's Harold Hayes reports:
Judge Jeffrey Manning announced the jury reached their verdict at 6:33 p.m. Friday.
Prosecutors, the defense and the families were called back into the courtroom shortly afterward so the verdict could be read.
The jury, which deliberated for 15 hours, agreed with Allegheny County prosecutors who accused Ferrante, 66, of lacing his wife's creatine energy drink with cyanide he bought through his lab using a university-issued credit card two days before she fell suddenly ill.
Klein's relatives burst into tears upon hearing the guilty verdict.
"Justice for Autumn," said her mother, Lois Klein, of Towson, Maryland, outside court later.
"We did justice." Those were the words of jurors who spoke with reporters after their guilty verdict in the trial.
KDKA's Ralph Iannotti reports defense attorney Bill Difenderfer said he was "disappointed in the jury's guilty verdict," and there's been no decision yet on an appeal.
Difenderfer said he had no second thoughts about putting his client on the stand.
"I thought he [Ferrante] did extremely well," he said. "I thought he was candid, and I thought he explained exactly what he was doing and the history of the case. He was telling the truth. For whatever reason, [the jury] must have not bought it."
Difenderfer added that he was disappointed and heartbroken by the verdict. But, he said, "I respect it."
Phil DiLucente, an attorney not connected to the Ferrante trial, also weighed in on the case.
"The one fatal question that was posed to Dr. Ferrante on the stand and that he could not answer was, 'What did you do with the missing eight grams of cyanide that you had ordered and stored in your laboratory?'" said DiLucente. "And he said quote, 'I don't know.'"
And many jurors told KDKA they found Ferrante's Internet searches an incriminating factor in the trial.
Local defense attorneys continued to react over the weekend.
KDKA's Kym Gable talked to Blaine Jones. He says the Ferrante trial reminded him of a recent case in which his client was also found guilty after her web activity was introduced.
KDKA's Kym Gable reports:
"Internet searches are difficult to overcome," said Jones.
"In 2014, it's such a footprint that you leave. People are going to look back. Detectives are going to find what you were searching. And we have something so profound as cyanide and what it does, and your loved one is found possibly poisoned through cyanide, that's a big deal."
The jury first got the case at 1 p.m. on Thursday.
One of the things that may have made deliberations difficult is that the jury's options were limited. Some may have seen it as an "all or nothing" option.
Their options were guilty of first-degree murder, which requires premeditation. No other degrees of criminal homicide were options in this case. Another option for them was not guilty of first-degree murder. If that had happened, Ferrante would have went free.
The jury's third option was that they were unable to reach a verdict. A hung jury would have brought about a mistrial, and prosecutors could have tried the case again if they chose.
The jury only asked two questions during the deliberation process, both on Thursday.
One about a witness who was a lab partner of Ferrante's. The other was about the 911 tape called in the night Klein collapsed in 2013. They listened to it again.
The courtroom was packed during closing arguments and was packed again when the verdict was announced.
It's where the prosecution argued Ferrante is a diabolical killer; and where the defense argued he's an innocent man, charged with a crime he didn't commit.
Before the verdict came down, some court observers believed the testimony of both former medical examiner Dr. Cyril Wecht and the defendant himself bolstered the defense's case.
The jury had no questions Friday, but late this afternoon asked to get some fresh air.
The four-woman, eight-man jury was sequestered for the night following the first day of deliberations Thursday, which lasted about six hours.
Ferrante denied poisoning his wife. His lawyers made the case that she might not have been poisoned at all, citing three defense experts who said that couldn't be conclusively proved.
"At a minimum we established very clear reasonable doubt," defense attorney William Difenderfer said, referring primarily to testimony from celebrity pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who said he couldn't determine how Klein died because he thought a test that showed cyanide in her blood was unreliable.
Ferrante said the cyanide he bought was for stem cell experiments he was conducting on Lou Gehrig's disease, because the toxin can be used to kill of neurological cells and thus simulate the disease in the lab.
But prosecutors said Ferrante was a "master manipulator" who concocted the plan to kill his wife after she pressured him to have a second child and because he may have feared she was having an affair or planned to divorce him.
The key to the prosecution's case was a test on Klein's blood that revealed a lethal level of cyanide. The blood was drawn while doctors at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital tried in vain for three days to save her life, though the results weren't known until after she died and her body was cremated.
Ferrante did online searches on cyanide poisoning and how it might be removed by the medical treatments Klein received or detected by a coroner after her death. He said that the queries were related to his research and that the other searches were made simply as he tried to understand the treatment his wife received.
The life sentence is mandatory in any first-degree murder case. Prosecutors declined to pursue the death penalty because they said they found no aggravating circumstances that would have made it a capital offense.
Dr. Klein's parents released this statement following the verdict:
"On behalf of our daughter Autumn, we would like to thank the District Attorneys Office, the Pittsburgh Police Department, UPMC and the Center for Victims for all of the help they have given us over the past 18 months.
"We would also like to thank the members of the jury for their hard work.
"While we are pleased that the person responsible for Autumn's death has been brought to justice, nothing will ever fill the emptiness that we feel in our family and in our hearts. Our daughter was not only in the prime of her life, but also in the prime of a promising medical career. She had such enthusiasm for living and working and now we are left to ask how many lives she would have made more comfortable and productive had she been able to live her own life.
Autumn also adored being a mom to Cianna and now we have a beautiful little girl who will grow up never being able to ask all the questions that girls ask of their mom.
"Someone once said that when someone you love dies so young, you can either be sad at what will never be, or be joyful of the time you had with that person. We will always enjoy the memory of Autumn's time with us, but it is hard not to be forever saddened by the time that has been so cruelly taken away."
The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office released this statement:
"Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. would like to thank the members of the jury for their hard work in what was obviously a very difficult task, both emotionally and physically.
"Additionally, there are always a large number of agencies and individuals who work together in the course of a criminal prosecution and their efforts should not go unnoticed.
"Finally, the District Attorney would like to express his deepest gratitude to the members of the Klein family, especially Mr. and Mrs. Klein for the quiet strength and dignity they have shown over the past year and a half."
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