The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office today dropped felony charges against the University of California Regents as part of an agreement involving labor code violations relating to the 2008 death of a chemistry staff research assistant.
Similar charges against UC Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran were not dropped. The case against Harran has been postponed until Sept. 5 while the judge reviews a motion filed by his attorney challenging the credibility of a state investigator.
In the UC agreement, the Regents, the governing body of the University of California system, accepted responsibility for the laboratory conditions that led to researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji’s death after a Dec. 29, 2008, fire in Harran’s laboratory. Sangji was working with tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air, when the plunger came out of the syringe barrel. Sangji, 23, was not wearing a lab coat, and her clothes caught fire, burning her torso, arms, and hands. She died of her injuries 18 days after the fire.
The university system also agreed to establish an environmental law scholarship in Sangji’s name at UC Berkeley and to maintain a laboratory safety program for chemistry and/or biochemistry departments at all of its campuses.
The safety program specified in the agreement requires safety training for principal investigators and other laboratory personnel. It also includes provisions for written standard operating procedures for a list of chemicals and outlines minimal personal protective equipment for laboratories. Principal investigators must review standard operating procedures and assess whether personal protective equipment is adequate for laboratory procedures.
“UCLA and the Regents have finally admitted that they wronged Sheri terribly,” says Naveen Sangji, Sheri’s sister. “Our family’s pain will not diminish, but our hope, of course, is that no one else has to suffer the way Sheri did, and that such tragedies are avoided in the future.”
The motion filed by Harran’s defense attorney questions the credibility of California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel. He authored the 2009 Cal/OSHA report that the agency sent to the district attorney recommending criminal charges in the case. The district attorney subsequently filed charges on Dec. 27, 2011.
The motion asserts that Baudendistel was convicted of murdering a 26-year-old man during a failed methamphetamine deal in 1985, when Baudendistel was 16. Because Baudendistel was a juvenile, the conviction record was sealed.
The defense team’s motion argues that because Baudendistel had failed to report his criminal record repeatedly—in his job application for Cal/OSHA, a firearms permit, and a private investigator’s license—his credibility is in question. If the judge issuing Harran’s arrest warrant had known about Baudendistel’s credibility issues, the motion says, his report alone wouldn’t support the charges.
The prosecution of Harran, therefore, “has been flawed from the start,” says Thomas P. O’Brien, Harran’s attorney.
“The defendants’ most recent attempt to deflect attention from the charges brought against them simply does not relate in any way to the circumstances of Ms. Sangji’s death or the actual evidence collected in Cal OSHA’s comprehensive investigation,” says a Cal/OSHA statement provided by spokesperson Erika Monterroza.
University of California vice president and general counsel Charles F. Robinson pledged that the UCs will continue to support the defense of Harran, whom he described as a respected and valued member of the UC faculty. “Prof. Harran is not responsible for this horrific accident. The university has acknowledged its role in overseeing the laboratory conditions on that date.”
To download a PDF of the UC agreement, go to http://cenm.ag/agreement.
To download a PDF of defense's motion, go to http://cenm.ag/defense.