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Trial decision delayed in UCLA lab death case

December 18, 2012 |  7:06 pm

A Los Angeles judge has delayed until mid-February her decision on whether UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran must stand trial on charges stemming from the December 2008 lab fire that killed staff research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji.

At the end of a preliminary hearing Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Lisa B. Lench granted a defense request to submit written motions to dismiss or reduce the felony charges against Harran to misdemeanors. Lench scheduled a Feb. 15 hearing on the motions.

Harran’s preliminary hearing, which spanned several days in November and resumed Monday, included testimony by a prosecution expert that Sangji lacked the skills and training to handle chemicals that burst into flame during an experiment on Dec. 29, 2008. She suffered severe burns over nearly half her body and died 18 days later.

“When you ask an untrained person to deal with a high-risk task, something bad is going to happen,” Neal Langerman, a San Diego chemical safety consultant, testified last month.

Sangji, 23, who graduated in 2008 from Pomona College in Claremont with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, had worked in Harran's organic chemistry lab for less than three months. She was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air.

Harran and the University of California regents were charged last December with three felony counts each of willfully violating occupational safety and health standards. They were accused of failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, to require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training.

Lawyers for UCLA and Harran have contended from the outset that Sangji’s death was a tragic accident and that she was a seasoned chemist who was trained in the experiment and chose not to wear a protective lab coat over her flammable synthetic sweater.

On Tuesday, Harran’s lawyer Thomas O’Brien quizzed Langerman about the protection the lab coat would have provided. “It would have more likely than not retarded the ignition and would have mitigated the injuries,” Langerman said.

Charges against the university were dropped in July, when the regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name. The charges against Harran are thought to be the first stemming from an academic lab accident in the United States. He faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted.

Other prosecution witnesses at the hearing included Brian Baudendistel, a senior special investigator for the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, whose 95-page report on the accident formed the basis for the charges. The defense last summer sought to disqualify Baudendistel after linking him to a murder in Northern California in 1985, when he was a juvenile. Lench rejected the request.

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--Kim Christensen

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