Judge likely to unfreeze funds to pay for lawyers

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No decisions were made Monday in a motion hearing for the University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of killing his wife, but the judge on the case made it clear which way he was leaning about whether to unfreeze the man’s assets to pay for his criminal defense.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said that a defendant has the right to defense counsel of his choosing, and such is the case with Robert Ferrante, accused of killing his wife, Autumn Klein, with cyanide in April.

At a hearing in August, the prosecution moved to freeze Mr. Ferrante’s assets in anticipation of collecting restitution for the couple’s minor daughter if he is convicted. Another judge issued a temporary restraining order in the matter, leaving only about $243,000 for Mr. Ferrante’s defense.

Last month, his attorneys, William Difenderfer and Wendy Williams, asked the court to unfreeze the money in Mr. Ferrante’s name to pay for various aspects of the defense, including expert witnesses and investigators.

The prosecutors have objected, saying they fear Mr. Ferrante will dissipate his assets, leaving nothing for his young daughter. At the hearing Monday, civil attorney John P. Gismondi, who represents Klein’s estate, said he estimated a wrongful death and survivor’s action could net $5 to $6 million in Klein’s lost wages over her lifetime.

Assistant district attorney John Fitzgerald argued, “$243,000 was unfrozen. … Nobody has to pay $243,000 up front for these services that they’re talking about. Your honor, the commonwealth is not begrudging the money to pay for a defense.”

Instead, the prosecution has asked the court to require the defense to have the judge review the expenses and sign off on them if appropriate. But Mr. Difenderfer objected.

“It is a scary thought that I would have to come to the commonwealth … and say, ‘Can I please have some money?’ ” Mr. Difenderfer said. “This is unconscionable.”

Further, the attorney continued, Mr. Ferrante has no intention of dissipating his assets.

Judge Manning told the commonwealth attorneys that it was none of their business how much Mr. Ferrante is paying his defense attorneys.

“As long as he is doing so for his defense, he may do so foolishly,” the judge said.

Judge Manning told both sides that he’d reviewed both the Pennsylvania legislation and the Constitution, which guarantee a defendant’s right to counsel.

“Let me assure you, statutes don’t trump the Constitution,” Judge Manning said. “The statute should not be allowed to impinge on the constitutional rights of the defendant.”

Among other issues discussed at the hearing, Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus said that a journal belonging to Klein was found in the police evidence locker and will be made available to the defense.

In a motion filed late Friday, Mr. Ferrante’s attorneys said they believed they’d not gotten all of the required discovery in the case. At the hearing, they said a single page of Klein’s diary, in which she wrote about missing love in her life and another unsuccessful attempt at in vitro fertilization, was sandwiched between a medical record and a police report.

The defense has claimed that the DA’s office has done “whole computer dumps” with hundreds of gigabytes of information provided on hard drives and discs that do not open.

Mr. Claus said that the defense received the information the same way the prosecution did.

Also, in a search warrant application unsealed Friday, DA Detective Lyle Graber wrote that Google records confirmed that a search performed on the laptop found with Mr. Ferrante at the time of his arrest originated from his home address about 8 1⁄2 hours after he learned from police that his wife had died from cyanide poisoning.

The search phrase was “would ecmo or dialysis remove traces of toxins poisons.”

ECMO is the acronym for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — a blood circulation system that supplies oxygen to the blood for patients whose heart and lungs are severely damaged and no longer functioning. The technology was used to treat Klein at UPMC Presbyterian — where she was taken after she collapsed.

Judge Manning is expected to rule on the asset issue later this week, and a status conference in the case is scheduled for Feb. 25.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published February 10, 2014 12:02 PM


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