PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – The trial of a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher charged with killing his neurologist wife with cyanide got underway Thursday afternoon with jurors listening to the 911 call he made when his wife collapsed.
After the judge’s initial instruction to the jury, opening statements began in the afternoon after two new alternate jurors had been selected.
KDKA’s David Highfield Reports:
Prosecutor Lisa Pellegrini told the jury Dr. Autumn Klein was unhappy with her marriage and wanted to get pregnant again so her daughter wouldn’t be alone if something ever happened to her. Her husband, Dr. Robert Ferrante, 66, was considerably older than Klein, 41, and Pellegrini said Ferrante became jealous of her relationship with a colleague.
Pellegrini said when Klein was at a conference in San Francisco, Ferrante did a computer search involving “suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge,” and “does an increased vagina size indicate your spouse is having an affair.”
Two days before Klein took ill, Pellegrini told the jury Ferrante told his staff, “I want the purest potassium cyanide, and I want it tomorrow.”
Eventually, she says, the cyanide he ordered was found in the lab refrigerator with eight grams missing from the 250 gram bottle, and his fingerprints were on that bottle.
“He ordered it, he gave it to her, and she died,” said Pellegrini.
Later his Google searches sought answers to whether certain medical procedures would erase traces of poisons and how to erase web searches on a computer, said the prosecutor.
KDKA’s Harold Hayes Reports:
Later, jurors heard a dramatic 911 call as Ferrante called for help when Klein collapsed in their home. During the call, Klein could be heard groaning as Ferrante told the dispatcher he thought she was having a stroke and that she had previous fainting spells.
Here’s part of the call:
911: They’re already on their way, it’s not delaying the call at all. They’ve already been en route, OK. [groaning] Her eyes are still open? [groaning]
Ferrante: Yes, her eyes are still open. [groaning] She’s looking, she just closed them. [groaning] Oh God, help me. God help me. [groaning]
911: OK, like I said I’m sending the paramedics to help you. [groaning] OK, I’m making sure help is on the way. [groaning] Don’t let her have anything to eat or drink. [groaning] OK, Bob?
Ferrante: [groaning] Oh God, help me.
911: OK Bob, OK don’t let her have anything to eat or drink or make her sick and cause problems for the doctor, OK. Just, I want you to let her rest in most comfortable position and wait for help to arrive.
Ferrante: Her, her, her folks are down at Shadyside maybe that would be the best place to take her. [groaning]
911: OK let the paramedics know that when they arrive that you want to have her taken to Shadyside, OK?
Ferrante: I, I, I will. [groaning]
In addition to the 911 tape, surveillance video from UPMC was also released at the trial Thursday.
It shows Klein on her last day at work: April 17, 2013.
Klein is seen walking down a hallway, using the escalator and leaving work to head home at 11:18 p.m. Thirty minutes later, Ferrante called 911, explaining that his wife had collapsed in the kitchen of their Oakland home.
The last bit of video shows Klein returning to the hospital on a stretcher.
Evidence photos from Ferrante and Klein’s home were also shown in court.
Allegheny County prosecutors and attorneys for Dr. Robert Ferrante on Wednesday finished picking the 12 jurors and four alternates for the trial. But two of the alternates told Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning that serving on what’s expected to be a three-week trial would be a hardship.
Thursday morning’s proceedings began with the judge questioning the two alternate jurors who asked to be excused because their employers would not pay them during the duration of the trial.
As a result, two other alternates were selected from a panel of 20. One, a man who is an office manager, and the other is a grandmother, who is both a homemaker and does odd jobs cleaning.
Ferrante is charged with criminal homicide for allegedly lacing an energy drink with cyanide to kill Klein in April 2013 after telling her the drink would help them conceive another child. Their daughter, Cianna, was 6 when her mother fell suddenly ill and died three days later.
Ferrante has denied the allegations and has said through his attorneys that he’s “devastated” by her sudden death. But authorities contend he bought the poison with his University of Pittsburgh credit card two days before his wife became ill, and that someone used his computer to research whether treatments his wife received after falling ill would have removed the toxin from her system.
Ferrante had his wife cremated shortly after her death, but tests on her blood stemming from her hospital treatment revealed the cyanide, prompting police to charge him about three months after she died.
Defense attorneys William Difenderfer and Wendy Williams had sought an out-of-county jury based on pretrial publicity. Although county Judge Jeffrey Manning granted their request, the defense decided without explanation a few weeks ago to pick a jury locally.
A court-imposed gag order prevents the attorneys and witnesses from commenting until after a verdict.
Meanwhile, local attorneys not involved in the trial are weighing in on the high-profile nature of the case and if it could affect the outcome.
KDKA’s Paul Martino Reports:
“I think this is one of the biggest murder cases ever to face Allegheny County,” said Phil DiLucente, a defense attorney not involved with the case. “It reads like a Hitchcockian thriller.”
Patrick Thomassey has been involved in over a hundred murder cases, both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He says the big problem in a high profile case like this one, is picking an unbiased jury.
“Naturally, when they’re asked by the judge or by the lawyers whether they’ve made up their mind before the trial starts, they say no,” said Thomassey, who is also not involved in the trial. “But with all the media coverage, many, many people, I have found over the years, have a fixed opinion.”
Both attorneys agree Ferrante has one big advantage; he’s got hundreds of thousands to spend on his defense.
“Justice is green. The more money you have, the better defense you can raise. The more resources you have. The more avenues you can take for defenses,” said DiLucente.
KDKA’s Paul Martino Reports:
But Thomassey gives the edge to the prosecution.
“The conviction rate in the county is pretty high. Conviction rate in the whole country is very high. People are tired of violence. It’s going to be a difficult case,” he said. “But you have good lawyers in the case; it’ll be interesting to watch.”
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