- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A western Pennsylvania judge must decide whether to unfreeze all or some of the financial assets of a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher jailed on charges he fatally poisoned his neurologist wife with cyanide.

Defense attorneys for Dr. Robert Ferrante, 65, want about $2.2 million in several bank accounts made available to pay for Ferrante’s defense. But Allegheny County prosecutors argued in a pretrial hearing Monday that the money should remain frozen - unless the court specifically approves defense expenditures. Prosecutors want to make sure Ferrante will be able to pay criminal restitution if he’s convicted in the April death of his wife, or any civil penalties if he’s eventually sued and loses or reaches a settlement.

“Isn’t that putting the cart way before the horse?” Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning asked prosecutors.

Assistant District Attorney John Fitzgerald argued it’s not because courts have ruled in a case involving a drug dealer that assets can be frozen before trial so they’re available to be paid out to victims afterward.

But Manning, who hinted he may release at least some of Ferrante’s money when he issues a ruling in about a week, said Ferrante’s case is different because his assets aren’t ill-gotten criminal proceeds. Rather, they’re derived from investments and legal income Ferrante earned as a researcher into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The judge also noted that if he keeps the assets frozen, taxpayers could wind up paying for much of Ferrante’s defense.

Ferrante is charged with using the fast-acting poison to spike an energy drink belonging to his wife, 41-year-old Dr. Autumn Klein. Ferrante has denied that, saying through his attorneys that he remains “devastated” by his wife’s death, although search warrants recently unsealed show Ferrante carefully researched the poisoning.

Among other things, county detectives said they found evidence that Ferrante did computer searches five days after his wife died to learn whether treatments Klein received after falling suddenly ill would have removed poison from her system.

Pittsburgh police charged Ferrante in July after revealing he had purchased more than a half-pound of the poison using a university credit card just two days before Klein fell suddenly ill, even though the toxin isn’t related to his research.

The case has been complicated not just by the manner of Klein’s death, but by legal questions concerning custody of their 6-year-old daughter, Cianna, and how Klein’s estate and Ferrante’s assets are to be used to care for the girl and pay for his legal expenses. Another judge who is handling other aspects of the case allowed Ferrante to use $280,000 to pay his defense attorneys, but has frozen the other assets.

Fitzgerald, the assistant prosecutor, called attorney John Gismondi to testify about a potential wrongful death lawsuit to be filed on behalf of Klein’s estate and the couple’s daughter. Gismondi said such suits typically target lost potential earnings which, in Klein’s case, could be several million dollars since she earned more than $200,000 annually and could reasonably be expected to have worked into her 60s.

William Difenderfer, Ferrante’s defense attorney, asked Gismondi what he’d collect in legal fees, and Gismondi acknowledge he’d likely get 33 percent to 40 percent of any civil verdict.

“So by preserving these assets, they’re helping you with your fee?” Difenderfer said.

The defense attorney argued, and Judge Manning seemed to agree, that Ferrante’s rights could be violated if prosecutors have a say in how much Ferrante spends on his defense.

“It is a scary thing that I have to come to the Commonwealth and say, ‘I want to hire this expert, can we have some money?’” Difenderfer said. “That is unconscionable.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide