Irretrievably Broken

Robert Ferrante, center, is flanked by his defense attorneys William Difenderfer, left, and Wendy Williams as he is escorted to Judge Jeffrey Manning's courtroom for the first day of his trial.

At 1 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, the jurors hearing the criminal case against Robert Ferrante left the courtroom of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning and climbed the steep 20 steps up to their deliberation room.

It was a cold, stark place with a dark brown concrete floor and frosted-over, painted-shut windows that not even a fresh coat of white on the walls and a few new ceiling tiles could soften.

The jury of eight men and four women had spent the last 10 days listening as prosecutors from the Allegheny County district attorney's office questioned their own 50 witnesses, and Mr. Ferrante's defense attorneys called 19.

The jurors had examined 323 exhibits, listened to a chilling 911 call and learned more than they'd ever want to about what cyanide does to a human body.

Now, they knew, it was time to begin the solemn task of deciding whether Mr. Ferrante had killed his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein.

They had already chosen their foreman before closing arguments from among four people who were interested. They put the names in a hat and Juror No. 7, Brian Maitz, was selected.

The jurors agreed that their first order of business should be to take a preliminary poll to see where everyone stood.

They used a number system, 1 for guilty, 2 for not guilty and 3 for undecided.

In that first poll, three people voted for guilty; two thought Mr. Ferrante was not guilty and seven were undecided.

Most of the group agreed that it was a starting place, but Juror No. 1 was outraged. She didn't understand how anyone could believe the defendant was not guilty. The rest of the panel agreed the best way to begin their deliberations was to simply walk through the case — witness by witness.

But No. 1 refused to participate, making the already-stressful situation even worse.

Juror No. 6, Lance DeWeese, who had been pacing around the stuffy 15-by-12-foot space, was frustrated.

He finally addressed Juror No. 1 directly about what he called the "elephant in the room."

"Whether you want to be here or not, it's how some people make a decision."

Because of the palpable hostility, the jurors agreed that when they wanted to speak, they had to raise their hands.

And so they began.

The jury box in Judge Jeffrey Manning's courtroom during the Ferrante trial at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

The jurors started with the 911 call Mr. Ferrante made the night of Dr. Klein's collapse on April 17, 2013 — the first piece of evidence introduced at trial by assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini.

At nearly 12 minutes long, it had been their first glimpse into the defendant's personality.

The jurors didn't have a transcript of the call, and they weren't permitted to take the recording into the deliberation room, so they reconvened in Judge Manning's courtroom to listen to it again.

"Hello, hello, please, please, please, please. I'm at 219 Lytton Avenue. I think my wife is having a stroke," Mr. Ferrante pleaded to the 911 operator. "She's staring."

"Listen to me, is she awake?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yes, yes."

"Is she breathing?" the dispatcher continued.

"Yes, she's breathing.

"Honey, sweetheart, are you OK?" Mr. Ferrante asked.

But his wife couldn't respond.

Instead, three minutes into the 911 call, a horrific, guttural moaning began.

The dispatcher instructed Mr. Ferrante to have his wife try to smile and raise her arms above her head. She could do neither.

"Oh, God help me, God help me."

"She's not breathing normally now. Big huge breaths. Oh, please, have them hurry," Mr. Ferrante begged. "Sweetheart, sweetheart, I love you very much. Please don't do this. Please, please, sweetheart, sweetheart."

The dispatcher asked if Dr. Klein ever had something like this happen before. There had been fainting spells, Mr. Ferrante said, and his wife had been tired.

"My wife's trying to get pregnant again," he volunteered, noting that she had been on several medications.

"Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," Mr. Ferrante cried. "Where the hell is somebody?"

As the haunting moans of Dr. Klein bounced off the courtroom walls, Juror No. 1 kept her head down, repeatedly wiped her eyes, and flipped each page of the transcript angrily.

When the call ended, the group again trudged upstairs and gathered around the table — bottles of ibuprofen and antacid within reach, along with homemade cookies made by a juror's wife and premixed packages of coffee and hot chocolate.

The courtroom where Mr. Ferrante's trial was held.
Allegheny County District Attorney's office
Cyanide bottle in Bob Ferrante's lab.

It was time to work their way through the testimony.

The prosecution presented evidence that Mr. Ferrante, a neuroresearcher at the University of Pittsburgh, had purchased a 250-gram bottle of potassium cyanide with a school credit card on April 15, 2013, and then had it shipped overnight to his lab in Scaife Hall.

Then, they contended, he removed 8.3 grams of it, and the night of April 17, mixed it into a sugary drink for his wife — disguised in the nutritional supplement creatine, and gave it to her.

Dr. Klein collapsed to the kitchen floor of their Schenley Farms home, and Mr. Ferrante called 911 at 11:52 p.m.

When paramedics arrived, Dr. Klein was breathing and had a pulse, but she could not speak or respond to questions. Within minutes, her vitals began to drop, and she was rushed to UPMC Presbyterian, less than a half-mile from the couple's house.

UPMC Presbyterian, where Autumn Klein was treated after her collapse on April 17, 2013.
Results of Autumn Klein's cyanide testing, which show a change in the result from 2.2 milligrams per liter to 3.4 milligrams per liter.
Robert Ferrante's Google search history.
Jurors on the Ferrante case talk to the media after the verdict.

At the trauma center, the staff worked tirelessly to save her, believing at first she was having a stroke or brain aneurysm. Despite heroic efforts — including resuscitating her from cardiac arrest and putting her on life support to filter and oxygenate her blood — Dr. Klein died on April 20.

A day later, the Quest Diagnostics lab in Chantilly, Va., returned to Presby the results it had gotten from a cyanide blood test for Dr. Klein that had been submitted two days earlier — it was a fatal level.

But, the jurors knew, the test results were not so clear-cut.

Although the lab technician who ran the test found that Dr. Klein's blood had a level of 2.2 milligrams per liter of cyanide in it, her supervisor recalculated the findings and changed her report to say the level was 3.4 mg.

Both levels would be fatal, but Mr. Ferrante's defense attorneys, William Difenderfer and Wendy Williams, spent much of the trial hammering away on those results — questioning why the supervisor would change them, and if the controls in the lab were so loose as to allow that to happen, how could anyone be sure the fatal levels were there at all?

Further complicating the cyanide test results, the jurors found, was evidence from another lab, NMS, which also tested Dr. Klein's blood and found only a background level of the toxin.

Around 6 p.m. Thursday, the jurors found themselves stuck on the clinical aspects of the tests and finally decided they were tired and hungry. Knowing they were going to be sequestered in a hotel under police guard, they agreed to call it a night and left for dinner.

After breakfast the next day on the 17th floor of the Doubletree Hotel Downtown, the jurors divided up between two shuttle buses to make the three-minute return trip to the courthouse. At 9 a.m. Friday, they started where they had left off the night before — discussing the cyanide test results — most of them agreeing that the 2.2 milligrams per liter lethal result from Quest was valid.

The voting started to shift — it was seven guilty, two not guilty and three who remained undecided.

They kept working.

As they moved through the evidence, Mr. DeWeese requested from Judge Manning's staff a large white board and dry erase markers. They used them to list the Google searches prosecutors said Ferrante had conducted in order, in an attempt to complete a full timeline with the emails and text messages exchanged between Dr. Klein and her husband.

The Google searches found on Mr. Ferrante's computers included: "cyanide poisoning," on Jan. 8, 2013, "potassium cyanide neuroscience project," on April 14; and on April 22, "medical examiner toxicology report," "toxicology studies potassium cyanide," and "detecting potassium cyanide poisoning."

That he specifically searched for "potassium cyanide," was important to the jurors because it showed that he was looking up the kind of cyanide he had ordered.

The foreman, Mr. Maitz, used a small, spiral tablet to copy what was written on the white board when it needed to be erased so they had room to continue.

The emotions in the room remained tense. The smokers on the panel, who had repeatedly asked to go outside, were instead allowed to go to an adjoining jury room with an air purification system when they needed a break to save time.

As the jurors continued their discussions Friday afternoon, Dr. Klein's parents tried to keep themselves busy out of the eyes of the media. Lois and William, who was using a wheelchair to move through the long halls, sat at a table outside the courthouse's fourth-floor Gold Room, reading magazines, eating leftover Halloween candy and talking to their loved ones.

Although the jury had returned to the courtroom with two questions Thursday afternoon, throughout the day Friday, they asked nothing. For those watching the trial, their silence was impenetrable. Did it mean they were stuck? That they were making progress? That they were simply working methodically through the evidence?

None of the attorneys would speculate.

Autumn Klein's mother, Lois, is escorted through the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Late Friday afternoon, Ms. Pellegrini joined Mrs. Klein and Chris Chambers, the victim advocate working with the family, as they waited. They told stories and laughed like old friends.

In the meantime, the jurors had started evaluating the defense witnesses, including several experts who testified that they did not believe it could be said with certainty that Dr. Klein even died from cyanide poisoning.

The jurors kept returning to the timing of the cyanide order, the emails about the couple's relationship and the online searches.

They talked, too, about Mr. Ferrante's own testimony.

Mr. DeWeese, who visibly shifted in the jury box and leaned in when the defendant unexpectedly took the stand, watched Mr. Ferrante closely as he testified.

What he saw was the defendant looking back.

"He was trying to feel us out, if we were buying it. Trying to read us," Mr. DeWeese said.

The jurors noted inconsistency in what Mr. Ferrante said versus what the other evidence showed. One glaring example, they said, was that he told police he was in the kitchen when Dr. Klein returned home that night from work, but during the trial he testified that he was upstairs in their bedroom and heard her come in.

A new poll put the split at nine guilty and three undecided.

Those who were still not sure explained to the group why they were conflicted. One was stuck on the idea that the dialysis should have cleaned Dr. Klein's blood, and another just couldn't believe that, given Mr. Ferrante's character, he would kill his wife.

"It's happened for thousands of years," Mr. DeWeese argued. "This is nothing new."

He recounted the biblical story of King David, who had Bathsheba's husband killed so he could make the woman his own.

The jurors, who had been working for more than six hours straight on Friday, agreed they needed some air. They asked to go for a walk outside.

As they strolled around the courtyard, the jurors felt as if they were on display, looking up at the stone walls of the castle-like building into the third- and fourth-floor windows as reporters, attorneys and Dr. Klein's relatives looked down at them.

When they returned, there was another poll. It was 11 to 1.

For the next hour and a half, the lone undecided juror, No. 8, sat in front of the white board, talking through each step in the timeline of the case. The others in the group sat around quietly, interjecting when necessary, as he thought aloud about the case.

As that juror continued through his process, Michele Kearney, the court tipstaff, knocked on the door.

"Now's not a good time," Mr. DeWeese told her. But Ms. Kearney continued, "The judge wants..."

Mr. DeWeese, who then opened the door, cut her off.

"Now is not a good time."

He closed the door.

A few minutes later, Juror No. 8 said, "I believe he's guilty. Let's flip the light switch."

Judge Jeffrey Manning's courtroom during the Ferrante trial at the Allegheny County Courthouse

For the last time, the 12 people gathered around the brown Formica table, voting one last time. There was no discussion or commentary. Somberly, each person repeated, "Guilty."

Just before 6:30 p.m., the red jury light in the courtroom went off. There was a complete lack of urgency as media and court staff speculated that the jury wanted to break for dinner.

But then, each member of Dr. Klein's family who had spent the last 11 days watching the horrible details of the case spill out walked into the room. Then, Mr. Ferrante's family entered. Then additional sheriff's deputies.

There was a verdict.

Reporters sneaked out of the room to alert their desks and to tweet the news before the tipstaff announced for the last time in the Ferrante case, "All rise!" as the jury filed into the room.

In the front row behind the prosecution team, the Klein family grasped each other's hands, tears already falling.

As the foreman read the verdict, Lois' body began to shake — heaving sobs of sadness, joy and relief.


Text: Paula Reed Ward

Paula Reed Ward covers the state courts system for the Post-Gazette. She previously worked at the Savannah Morning News and for the Pottsville Republican & Evening Herald. She has a master's degree in criminal justice.

Photo: Julia Rendleman

Julia Rendleman is a staff photographer at the Post-Gazette. She worked in south Louisiana and southern Illinois before coming to Pittsburgh in 2012. She enjoys working on long-term photo stories.

Other credits

Design: Kelly Mills
Editing: Lillian Thomas
Audio: Melissa Tkach