Expert: Print on cyanide vial could be vital in Ferrante murder trial

by: Adam Brandolph Updated:

PITTSBURGH - A single fingerprint found on a bottle of potassium cyanide could be a key piece of evidence if it matches a sample from Robert Ferrante, the University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of fatally poisoning his wife, a fingerprint expert said on Friday.

A match alone may not be enough for prosecutors.

“The fingerprint analyst can't say with any sort of certainty that just because the prints match that he or she can exclude other people,” said Ralph Haber, a California fingerprint expert. “It's not the case that fingerprints are so unique that you can rule everyone else in the world out.”

Ferrante, 65, is charged with one count of homicide in the death of his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist.

This week, Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini asked a judge to order that Ferrante provide “major case prints” for comparison against a partially filled 250-gram bottle of cyanide that members of the city's Mobile Crime Unit collected from Ferrante's laboratory in Oakland shortly after Klein's death. She died April 20, 2013, at UPMC Presbyterian, three days after collapsing in the couple's Schenley Farms home.

Major case prints differ from standard fingerprints in that they include prints of fingers, fingertips, finger joints, edges of fingers and the entire palm.

Kenneth L. Mains, founder of The American Investigative Society of Cold Cases and a detective in the Lycoming County District Attorney's Office, said fingerprints “are extremely damning evidence … dependent upon who's fingerprints they are and why they are there.”

“If the fingerprint found on the cyanide is the researcher's, it could just add to other evidence the prosecution already has,” Mains said. “The defense will obviously say it was on the bottle for practical purposes (or) say he moved the bottle from one cabinet to another.”

Haber, who has testified in dozens of criminal cases, said several factors could make finding a match difficult, including the quality of the impression on the bottle, the angle of the fingerprint, or if it's smeared. A number of factors also could make the print unusable or make a comparison impossible, he said.

“Fingerprints aren't as accurate as DNA,” Haber said. “The belief used to be that if 10 features matched on two fingerprints, then you had a match. That's been proven wrong over and over. Whether it's 10 or 11 or 12, there's no evidence that some number of similar features makes a match.”

Investigators have said Ferrante ordered the chemical through his lab on April 15, 2013, and stored it in his lab under lock and key.

At least one forensic toxicology report showed that Klein had a lethal amount of cyanide in her system when she died.

A jury from Dauphin County, to be selected on Sept. 8, will decide Ferrante's guilt or innocence. His trial is scheduled to begin before Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning on Sept. 22.

This article was written by Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE.