Irretrievably Broken

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Robert Ferrante is escorted to an October court hearing by Allegheny County deputy sheriff Mike Piscatelli.

Robert Ferrante stood up straight before the bench, his chin in the air, his hands shackled to a wide brown leather belt outside his dark blue blazer.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning asked if he had a statement to make on his own behalf.

"I have none, your honor," said the defendant, who was thinner than during their last encounter, his hair cropped close.

Ferrante then listened silently as the judge quoted author W. H. Auden, who wrote that society must stand in for the murder victim to either "demand atonement or grant forgiveness

"We are here today to demand atonement," the judge said.

He then ordered the former neuroresearcher for the University of Pittsburgh to serve the rest of his natural life in Pennsylvania's state prison system.

It was a preordained ending to the case following the Nov. 7 jury verdict declaring Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder for killing his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, with cyanide.

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette
William and Lois Klein are escorted by assistant district attorneys Lisa Pellegrini and Kevin Chernosky after the sentencing of Robert Ferrante for the death of their daughter, Autumn Klein.
Autumn Klein

Assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini held Lois Klein's hand and walked with the older woman as she approached the front of the courtroom.

The prosecutor had already agreed to read the victim impact statement to the court because Mrs. Klein worried her nerves would stop her from getting all the way through.

As Mrs. Klein introduced herself to the judge, her voice broke even as she spelled her last name.

"The loss of Autumn was never expected and has been extremely hard on both William and I," she wrote. "She was our only child and the light of our lives has now been extinguished."

She described what it is like now as they raise their 8-year-old granddaughter, Cianna.

She is enrolled in the Lego club and karate class, an art program. Last year, she took dance classes and swimming. She's a terrific speller and above the national average in math, too.

Cianna is a lovely little girl, Mrs. Klein wrote, and Autumn was a terrific mom.

But, "there is no longer peace in our lives," she continued. "He has certainly ruined our lives.

"All she ever wanted to do was to be able to help people. People all over the world are now losers."

She also mentioned more practical ramifications in their daughter's death: The Kleins have lost some of their retirement income, mental and medical support. A trip they expected to take to Ireland and Scotland to celebrate their 50th anniversary last year with their daughter and her family was canceled.

It was expected that the defense and prosecution would address Ferrante's finances at the hearing, as he is being sued by the Klein family for wrongful death. However, Ferrante and prosecutors, as well as the Kleins' civil attorney, have agreed that they are working toward a settlement that would bring that case to an end.

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette
Attorney John Gismondi addresses the media at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Wednesday. Mr. Gismondi represents the Klein family in a wrongful death lawsuit against Ferrante.

Dr. Klein's cousin and best friend, Sharon King, and her husband, Jeff, wrote letters to the court, too.

The couple, who live in Washington state, did not attend the hearing but wanted Judge Manning to know how Dr. Klein's death has affected them.

Ms. King talked about not only her loss — that the person with whom she shared her entire life is gone — but about how it affects Cianna, and her own young son.

"I have to explain to my little boy why his favorite auntie is gone. Such big, nasty life things for such young minds to comprehend ... when I can't even comprehend or make sense of them as an adult and as a mother. 

"This tragic murder strikes to the core of my belief that the world can be a safe place, since her life was taken in her own home, downstairs from where her own daughter was sleeping. How do you believe in love and the safety of trusting when the one closest to you takes your life in such a violent and diabolic manner?"

Mr. King focused on the impact of the homicide on his wife.

"They were intimate witnesses to each other's lives," he wrote. "Autumn balanced my wife's life in ways I cannot fathom. It has been almost two years since she was murdered, and it is clear to me that my wife will never have that kind of balance again."

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette
Ferrante's attorney William Difenderfer addresses the media with co-counsel Wendy Williams.

No one spoke for Ferrante.

His adult children, Kimberly and Michael, who testified for him at trial, did not attend the hearing, nor did his sister.

Defense attorney William Difenderfer said it was unnecessary to present evidence because the penalty for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania is mandatory.

He will appeal, though.

The defense lost its first attempt to do so during the hearing Wednesday.

They made an oral motion asking that Ferrante's conviction be overturned for a lack of evidence.

Mr. Difenderfer argued that the case against his client was purely circumstantial and that the prosecution presented no evidence proving Ferrante is the person who administered cyanide to Dr. Klein. More than that, the attorney argued, there was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Klein even died from cyanide poisoning.

"We believe the verdict was absolutely contrary to the evidence," Mr. Difenderfer said.

However, Judge Manning agreed with Ms. Pellegrini that the unanimous jury verdict showed otherwise, and that he must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict winner -- motion denied.

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette
Helen Ewing, a juror in the Ferrante trial, was one of the last holdouts during deliberations.

Helen Ewing, Juror No. 3 in the Ferrante case, sat behind the Klein family as she watched the man whose fate she helped decide receive his punishment. She was the only member of the panel to attend.

Since the verdict was read on that Friday evening three months ago, Ms. Ewing has thought about the case frequently.

Without hesitation she said, "I don't doubt the weight of the evidence we had at trial. The circumstantial evidence was sufficient to be beyond a reasonable doubt."

Still, she thought attending Ferrante's sentencing would bring her a sense of closure and acceptance.

"He seemed very relatable to me," Ms. Ewiing said, "so I found it so hard to accept a person like that could do that.

"What is anyone capable of?"


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