Attorneys for Pitt researcher accused of poisoning wife seek outside jury

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Defense attorneys for a University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of poisoning his wife have asked that the man’s trial be heard by jurors from outside of Allegheny County.

William Difenderfer made the oral motion for a change of venire during a status conference on the case against Robert Ferrante.

Mr. Ferrante, 65, is accused of giving cyanide to his wife, Autumn Klein, the night of April 17 at their Oakland home. She collapsed that night and died three days later at UPMC Presbyterian.

To determine the impact of pretrial publicity on potential jurors, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning questioned a panel of 78 people who had been subpoenaed for jury duty Tuesday in other cases.

Of those people, 36 said they had heard or read about the case. Of those, 13 said they had formed a fixed opinion on the matter.

Judge Manning will conduct another test before making a decision on the defense motion, but he said based on Tuesday’s results that “there is some validity” to Mr. Difenderfer’s concerns.

“Obviously, as each day goes by, there are more who will have read or heard about the case,” Judge Manning said.

But the court also noted that in the case against Richard Baumhammers, accused of going on a racially motivated killing rampage in April 2000, a jury was able to be picked locally.

In that instance, Judge Manning said, it took a total of 278 jurors questioned over eight days, before the panel could be seated.

If a change of venire is granted in the Ferrante case, it would be up to the state Supreme Court to designate a county from which a jury would be selected. They would then be brought to Pittsburgh to hear the case, which is expected to last at least two weeks.

The jurors would be housed in a local hotel under security for the duration.

The last time that happened in Allegheny County was for the trial of Richard Poplawski, who was accused of killing three Pittsburgh police officers in April 2009. The jury that ultimately convicted Poplawski and sentenced him to death in the summer of 2011 was chosen from Dauphin County.

Although no firm trial date has been set, both the defense and the prosecution agreed that the case could begin in early September.

A hearing on pretrial motions is scheduled for June 10.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published February 25, 2014 11:38 AM


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