A former University of Pittsburgh medical researcher deserves a new trial in the death of his wife because her donated liver suggests she wasn’t poisoned with cyanide as prosecutors contend, his attorney argued Wednesday.
Robert Ferrante’s attorney asked a three-judge Superior Court panel to grant a new trial in the April 2013 death of Dr. Autumn Klein or, at least, allow for an evidentiary hearing at which the liver recipient could testify.
“In these four years, I am still feeling great,” the unnamed recipient of Klein’s liver wrote in a letter quoted by attorney Chris Rand Eyster in an appeal filing before Wednesday’s arguments in Pittsburgh.
Eyster argued Klein’s liver would have been irreparably damaged and unable to be donated had she been poisoned.
The 69-year-old researcher’s appeal centers on attacking post-mortem tests done by Quest Diagnostics that found toxic levels of cyanide in the 41-year-old physician’s blood after an autopsy failed to detect the poison.
Ferrante is serving life in prison without parole after being convicted of first-degree murder in November 2014. Allegheny County prosecutors contend Ferrante killed Klein by putting cyanide in her energy drink, which text messages show he urged her to drink to enhance her fertility.
Klein collapsed and fell suddenly ill on April 17, 2013, when she could be heard gasping for air in the background as Ferrante called 911 for an ambulance. She died three days later.
Eyster contends the prosecutor’s office didn’t reveal before trial that a Quest subsidiary, the Nichols Institute, paid a $40 million fine for a 2009 federal misbranding conviction and $241 million more to settle related litigation. In that case, federal prosecutors contend Quest/Nichols sold to various laboratories misbranded tests that were unreliable in measuring parathyroid hormone levels in patients.
Allegheny County prosecutors contend the sanctions are irrelevant, but Eyster contends they could have been used to try to convince the jury the Quest blood test results were unreliable.
Ferrante and his trial attorneys argued Klein suffered cardiac arrhythmia or some kind of brain abnormality relating to headaches and fainting spells she had experienced in the previous months.
Ferrante acknowledged ordering cyanide in the weeks before Klein’s death but said that was related to his well-known research into Lou Gehrig’s disease. The poison was used to mimic the disease’s symptoms in lab animals, Ferrante said.
The appellate panel isn’t expected to rule for months.
Quest Diagnostics Inc. has said it conducts its business with the highest standards of quality and integrity. It said in 2009 the settlement resolved the government investigation and “puts it behind us.”