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Hearing On UCLA Lab Death Begins

Lab Safety: Outcome will determine whether chemistry professor’s case will go to trial

by Jyllian Kemsley , Michael Torrice
November 29, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 49

Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times
Harran (left) at a July 27 Los Angeles Superior Court hearing with his attorney, O’Brien.
This is a photo of Harran in court with his lawyer, Thomas O’Brien.
Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times
Harran (left) at a July 27 Los Angeles Superior Court hearing with his attorney, O’Brien.

A preliminary hearing started on Nov. 16 in the unprecedented felony labor code violation case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The charges stem from a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab that led to the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.

To read recaps of the court testimony, visit

At the end of the hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa B. Lench will decide whether prosecutors have gathered enough evidence to take the case to trial. After four afternoons of testimony, the hearing was suspended for scheduling reasons and will resume on Dec. 17.

So far, prosecutors Craig Hum and Marguerite Rizzo have called five witnesses to the stand: a fire department investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, a burn doctor who treated Sangji, a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Sangji’s body, a California state occupational safety investigator whose report on the fire led to the felony charges, and a chemical safety expert.

Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, previously tried to discredit the report of state safety investigator Brian Baudendistel because Baudendistel was allegedly involved as a teenager in a 1985 murder. After the judge and attorneys from both sides met privately on Nov. 19, however, Baudendistel testified without further objection from the defense. By the time the hearing paused, the defense had not finished cross-examining Baudendistel or chemical safety expert Neal Langerman.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against Harran and the University of California nearly a year ago. The district attorney dropped the charges against the UC system in July in exchange for UC accepting responsibility for the lab conditions, agreeing to follow a specific safety program, and establishing a law scholarship in Sangji’s name (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34).


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