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UCLA professor strikes deal in lab fire case, avoids prison

CrimeEducationTrials and ArbitrationJustice SystemUCLAChemistry
UCLA professor all but freed from criminal liability in 2008 laboratory fire that killed one
Lab fire victim's family: 'This settlement ... is barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual'

UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran struck a deal with prosecutors Friday that all but frees him from criminal liability in the 2008 laboratory fire that killed a staff research assistant.

Charged with four felony counts of willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards in the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, Harran had faced up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted.

Instead, under a "deferred prosecution agreement" approved by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli, Harran admitted no wrongdoing, but will develop and teach an organic chemistry course for college-bound inner-city students for five summers, perform 800 hours of non-teaching community service in the UCLA Hospital system, and pay $10,000 to the Grossman Burn Center in lieu of restitution to Sangji's family.

The resolution caps a long-running legal battle that pitted Harran and UCLA against Sangji's family and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. It did not sit well with Sangji's relatives, who had pushed for a trial and were "extremely disappointed" that prosecutors chose to settle.

"This settlement, like the previous one with UCLA, is barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual," the family said in a statement Friday.

Three felony counts against the University of California were dropped in July 2012 when the Board of Regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name.

Harran left the courtroom immediately after the hearing and did not comment after the judge approved the agreement. His attorney, Thomas O'Brien, said "our focus today should be on the Sangji family and their terrible loss" and that Harran was "dedicated to ensuring that such tragic accidents never occur again."

Sangji, 23, was not wearing a protective lab coat on Dec. 29, 2008, when a plastic syringe she was using to transfer t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another came apart, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. She suffered extensive burns and died 18 days later.

Harran and UCLA contend that Sangji — who had earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry five months before going to work in the professor's lab in October 2008 — was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear protective gear and had been trained in the experiment she was performing.

In what was thought to be the first criminal case arising from an academic lab accident, Harran, 44, was accused of failing to provide proper hazardous-chemical safety training, failing to require body protection for employees exposed to hazardous substances and failing to have an effective illness- and injury-prevention program.

If he fulfills his obligations under the agreement, the charges will be dismissed after five years.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Sangji had followed her older sister to Pomona College — a small, top-tier liberal arts school in Claremont. Their parents and younger brother settled in Canada.

In court Friday, Sangji's siblings excoriated Harran as someone who cared more about his ambitions than their sister, and who blamed the victim for her own death while deflecting responsibility.

Both urged Judge Lomeli to reject the agreement and order the case to trial.

"Sheri deserves justice for what happened to her," said Naveen Sangji, 31, a Boston surgeon. "She was a brilliant, dynamic woman who was living her life to the fullest when the defendant, Harran, and UCLA cut it short."

Her 24-year-old brother, Hussain, said that not prosecuting Harran would amount to the legal system's caving-in to pressure from a powerful institution.

"We have waited nearly six years for some kind of justice for the excruciating pain Sheri suffered due to his negligence," Hussain said. "Sheri, her friends and family and the public that funds Harran's research and pays his salary deserve to see him stand trial for the crimes he has rightly been charged with."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum said he understood the family's anguish, but said the settlement was "a fair resolution given the circumstances of the case." He said the decision to settle was made "at the highest levels of the D.A.'s office."

About 20 of Sangji's friends, relatives and colleagues submitted letters to Lomeli, describing in often wrenching detail the impact of her loss. Seemingly moved, Lomeli said that Sangji "came to life in this court" and he pledged to monitor Harran's community service.

The judge also doubled Harran's agreed-upon community service obligation, from 400 hours to 800.

Harran, who stared straight ahead as a slide show of Sangji's life was projected on a screen above him, did address the court, calling her death "the darkest time of my life."

"What happened to Sheri in my laboratory was absolutely horrible — and she was too young, too talented and had too bright a future for anyone to accept it," he said.

"Standing before you today, I understand that . . . I was ultimately responsible for the safety of the personnel in my laboratory," he said. "I have always felt I failed Sheri, and I deeply mourn her loss. I can only hope that, if not today, perhaps someday, [her family] can accept my deepest condolences and sympathies for their loss."

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Twitter: @kchristensenLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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