A Los Angeles County judge approved today an agreement between the district attorney’s office and University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran to defer prosecution of Harran on four felony charges of violating the state labor code.
The charges in the case stem from a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab that led to the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.
The deal mandates that Harran complete multiple forms of community service and pay a $10,000 fine. The four charges were not dismissed today, and the case against Harran is effectively on hold until his completion of the terms of the agreement, which will last for five years.
In a written statement released after the hearing, Sangji’s sister Naveen called the terms of the deal inadequate, calling it “a slap on the wrist.” Harran had faced up to 4.3 years in prison. In court today, Harran read a statement before the judge approved the agreement, saying he was “ultimately responsible” for the safety of people working in his lab. “I have always felt I failed Sheri, and I deeply mourn her loss,” he said.
As part of the community service mandated by the agreement, Harran must develop and teach an organic chemistry preparatory course for the South Central Scholars, a volunteer organization that helps prepare Los Angeles inner-city high school students for college and graduate school. The chemistry course will be open to students who recently entered college and are majoring in biology, chemistry, pre-med, or similar disciplines. Harran must teach this course each summer of the five-year term of the agreement.
The professor also must complete 800 hours of community service in the UCLA hospital system. This service cannot involve teaching, and could include jobs such as delivering food to patients, says Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum. The agreement initially set 400 hours for this community service, but Judge George G. Lomeli doubled the requirement before approving the deal.
Harran also must pay a $10,000 fine to the Grossman Burn Centers, where Sangji was treated after the 2008 accident.
The agreement also requires that Harran talk with all incoming UCLA chemistry and biology students about laboratory safety. Also he cannot violate California labor code over the five-year term, and must not publicly deny responsibility for the conditions of his lab at the time of the 2008 accident.
The L.A. district attorney’s office, along with the California Division of Occupational Health & Safety, will monitor Harran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement over the five years. If the office determines Harran isn’t meeting his requirements, and a judge agrees, the original case involving the four charges will proceed to trial. Judge Lomeli stressed this part of the agreement in court, saying he also would monitor compliance at regular court appearances: “[Harran] will be given one chance to get this right.”
At the end of the five-year term, if Harran has met his obligations, the district attorney’s office will move to dismiss all charges against him, and will not pursue any further prosecution.
Before the judge ruled on the agreement today, he allowed Sangji’s family and friends, including her sister Naveen, to speak. Naveen spoke about her sister’s life, her aspirations, what she meant to those who know her, and the deep pain caused by her death. She asked the judge to reject the agreement and proceed to trial because she and her family feel the agreement terms were inadequate punishment for Harran. Deputy District Attorney Hum said after the hearing that he understands the family’s position, but defended the agreement, calling it a fair resolution given the circumstances of the case.
Thomas P. O’Brien, Harran’s attorney, had no comment after the hearing.
The case against Harran started on Dec. 27, 2011, when the district attorney’s office filed charges against him and the UC governing body. Charges against UC were dropped on July 27, 2012, as part of a deal that included UC developing a prescribed safety program and a law scholarship in Sangji’s name.
The case against Harran continued with a preliminary hearing in November and December, 2012. A Los Angeles County judge ruled on April 26, 2013, that there was enough evidence for a trial.
After the ruling, Harran’s defense team filed motions to dismiss the charges on two separate occasions. Judge Lomeli denied the first set of motions on Aug. 26, 2013. The team then filed similar motions with the California Court of Appeal on Oct. 24, 2013.
In court today, Hum said that the defense will pull the appeal court motions as part of the agreement.