Judge rules UCLA chemistry professor will stand trial in lab death

Damian Dovarganes/AP

UCLA organic chemistry professor, Patrick Harran appears for his arraignment at Los Angeles Superior Criminal Courts building in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. Harran is being charged in connection with a laboratory fire that killed a staff research assistant at UCLA in December 2008. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran will stand trial on charges connected to the death of his lab assistant in 2008, a judge ruled Friday.

The criminal case, according to L.A. Superior Court Judge Lisa Lench, is highly unusual, and perhaps unprecedented for the university laboratory setting. The outcome could have large implications for universities in California in terms of assigning responsibility for the safety, training and supervision of lab workers.

"This is not a run of the mill case and not a run of the mill crime," Lench said. "It is nothing ordinary."

Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, 23, was working in Harran's lab when she accidentally pulled a plunger out of syringe containing a chemical that combusts when exposed to air. Sangji was not wearing a lab coat at the time. Her clothes caught on fire. She died 18 days later.

In September 2012, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office charged Harran, Sangji's supervisor, with three counts of violating California's occupational safety and health standards. Prosecutors in the case allege Harran failed to train and properly supervise Sangji.

Defense attorneys argued that Harran's lab was run much like other labs, and that he was unaware that he had a legal obligation to train Sangji, or face criminal penalties. Harran had been working at the university for less than six months when the incident occurred. 

"If you're going to hold someone criminally responsible, they need to know what the law is," said Tom O'Brien, Harran's attorney. O'Brien also argued that Harran could not be prosecuted on laws designed to regulate employers. UCLA, he pointed out, settled the charges against the school out-of-court by agreeing to change its safety regulations and enforcement. Harran, on the other hand, faces more than five years in prison for what, O'Brien said, was a horrible accident.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued that Harran needs to be held criminally accountable.

"This was an extremely tragic and horrific way to die," said Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum. "The defendant needs to be punished for that."

His prosecution, Hum said, would also stand as a "deterrent" to practices that "go on in a lot of different laboratories."

Friday's ruling means that a judge believes there's enough evidence that a crime occurred and of the defendant's guilt to warrant a criminal trial. Because of the unusual nature of the case and the seemingly unresolved issues it raises, both sides expect that the case will be appealed no matter the outcome.  

Harran remains free on his own recognizance. 

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