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UCLA professor arraigned on charges in fatal 2008 lab fire

September 5, 2012 | 12:03 pm


A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge entered a not guilty plea Wednesday on behalf of a UCLA chemistry professor arraigned on felony charges in a 2008 laboratory fire that killed a staff research assistant.

Judge Shelly Torrealba also set a preliminary hearing on Oct. 9 for professor Patrick Harran, who is charged with three counts of willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards.

Research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, 23, was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another in December 2008 when a plastic syringe came apart, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. Her synthetic-fabric sweater caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

UCLA and Harran have cast her death as a tragic accident, and said she was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear a protective lab coat. In December, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged Harran and the University of California regents with identical counts.

Harran’s arraignment had been postponed several times as plea negotiations continued. Charges against the university were dropped in July, when the regents agreed to accept responsibility for the lab's operating conditions at the time of the fire, to follow comprehensive safety measures and to endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name.

Torrealba entered the plea for Harran over the objection of the defense, which contends the charges were improperly filed and should be dismissed. Harran’s lawyers have challenged the credibility of the chief California Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigator on the case.


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 — Kim Christensen

Photo: Patrick Harran, left, during his arraignment Wednesday. His defense attorney Thomas P. O'Brien is at right. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.