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Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day one

With Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran appeared in court on Friday to begin a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. The charges stem from a 2008 laboratory fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in 2009.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present evidence to a judge, who will decide if there is enough to take the case forward to a trial. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed the charges against Harran and the University of California nearly a year ago. The university settled its case in August. The court arraigned Harran in September.

Friday afternoon, prosecutors Craig Hum and Marguerite Rizzo called three witnesses before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lisa B. Lench. Below is a summary of what each witness discussed with the prosecuting attorneys, along with the questions asked by defense attorney Thomas O’Brien on cross-examination. O’Brien was accompanied by Daniel Prince.
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Harran hearing in #SheriSangji case postponed

A Los Angeles County judge today delayed a hearing to present evidence in the case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran for felony labor code violations, reports C&EN’s Michael Torrice. The judge scheduled a new court date for Nov. 16. The charges relate to the 2009 death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangi from injuries sustained in a fire in Harran’s laboratory. A Los Angeles county court arraigned Harran last month, entering a not guilty plea over his attorney’s objection.

During the short proceeding today, the judge and attorneys dealt with some defense requests for documents, Torrice says. The district attorney agreed to provide documents from Pomona College, where Sangji received her bachelor’s degree, and Norac Pharma, where Sangji worked briefly between graduating from Pomona and starting work at UCLA. The district attorney objected to requests for documents from the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA), which investigated Sangji’s death and fined the university; the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which issues private investigator licenses; and Southwestern Law School. The judge said that the objections would be ruled on later and didn’t mention the nature of the requested documents, Torrice says. The defense has previously questioned the credibility of Cal/OSHA investigator Brian Baudendistel, alleging that as a juvenile he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and misrepresented his criminal record on applications for his Cal/OSHA job, firearms permit, and private investigator license.

The district attorney in July dropped similar charges against the University of California Regents in exchange for a settlement in which the Regents agreed to accept responsibility for the laboratory conditions, maintain a laboratory safety program in chemistry and/or biochemistry departments at all UC campuses, and establish an environmental law scholarship in Sangji’s name at UC Berkeley.

Scars from a lab explosion

I’m finishing up a cover story for C&EN, so in lieu of a round-up today I’m just going to point to a post by Corrie Kuniyoshi on the Chemistry Grad Student & Postdoc Blog. Kuniyoshi got her PhD from UCLA in 2005 and now works for ACS on education programs:

Lab Tales: How A Chemistry Lab Experiment/Explosion Changed My Life

Whenever I see the name t-butyl lithium it makes me feel a little nauseous. It isn’t just because of how the mention of this chemical has been circulated in the media lately (Google t-butyl lithium in the news), and it isn’t just because as an organic chemists I know about the potential dangers of this extremely pyrophoric base. It is rather because I have several inches of permanent scar tissue on my arm and a smaller scar on my face to remind me how chemical burns can have a lasting impact.

Other than my dissertation, my most prized possession that I took from the lab is an old pair of safety goggles I wore that night. It has a big white splotch where there was back-splash from the explosion just over the lens that was protecting my right eye.

(h/t Chemjobber)

A letter from UCLA on #SheriSangji coverage

We have a letter from UCLA in this week’s issue of C&EN:

In their 2,500-word article “California Deal Tightens Lab Safety,” Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice fail to give even passing mention to UCLA’s substantial efforts to improve lab safety—which have become a model for other institutions—since the tragic December 2008 accident and long before the Los Angeles County district attorney ever filed charges (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34).

This leaves your readers with the wholly false impression that if not for the DA’s actions, the University of California, Los Angeles, never would have done anything to improve lab safety. Furthermore, in an article with 27 hyperlinks, not one links to UCLA’s widely circulated statement on the matter. In the end, UCLA is afforded nothing more than a single throwaway line in the last paragraph. The same goes for a July 27 C&EN Online Latest News post, “University of California Reaches Agreement in Connection with Charges in Lab Researcher’s Death.” That’s especially disappointing since UCLA has worked hard to give Kemsley open access to our actions and accomplishments over the course of her extensive reporting on this issue. She knows full well how hard we’ve worked, but she chooses to completely ignore it.

As a former journalist, I’m not naive enough to expect advocacy for our side from any news organization, but I do expect fairness.

By Steve Ritea
Associate Director
UCLA Communications
Los Angeles

For those interested in more details, C&EN covered the changes to UCLA’s lab safety program in 2009 in “Learning from UCLA.” C&EN also covered the founding of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety in “New Center Will Promote Lab Safety.” Here on the blog, I also promoted the lab safety survey being done by the center, BioRaft, and Nature Publishing Group.

As Ritea notes, UCLA issued two statements after the July 27 court hearing: “Charges dropped against UC Regents in connection with lab accident” and “An update from Chancellor Block on charges in UCLA’s lab safety case.” The first statement says that “the campus has dramatically enhanced its lab safety programs” and links back to a July 17, 2009, statement, “Campus lab safety committee presents recommendations to chancellor.” The second statement says that “As recently as last week, UCLA received a national award for its lab safety program.” The referenced awards were for a shop hazard assessment tool and a general environment, health, and safety newsletter that covers, among other things, “proper storage of chemicals, a new ergonomic program to assist staff in the campus bakery and hot weather health tips.”

Analyzing Harran’s defense in the #SheriSangji case

As most blog readers have undoubtedly heard, at the July 27 court hearing for the University of California and UC Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran, the district attorney dropped the charges against UC in exchange for UC acknowledging responsibility for the laboratory conditions that led to Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji’s death, following an explicit lab safety program, and establishing a memorial scholarship in Sangji’s name.

Harran’s attorneys, meanwhile, are trying to get the charges against him dropped by attacking the credibility of California Department of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel. A defense motion filed on July 26 alleges that Baudendistel was involved a 1985 murder. Baudendistel would have been 16 at the time of the crime. In a follow-up story on C&EN Online this week, Michael Torrice reported on California juvenile records law and how likely it is that the allegations will derail the case, if the person convicted was indeed the same Baudendistel.

The defense motion also claims that a 2009 Cal/OSHA report written by Baudendistel “mischaracterizes or ignores outright testimony and other evidence…that tends to prove that Professor Harran did not violate any health or safety regulation, much less that he did so ‘willfully.’” After the hearing on the 27th, Harran’s attorney handed out not just the motion but many pages of supporting material. Included in that package were selected transcript pages (pdfs) of the interviews conducted by Baudendistel to prepare his report. (The report and its supporting material are exempt from public records laws in California because they are part of pending litigation.)

Below, I explore how well that supporting material bolsters the motion’s assertions. Anything in bold is a point from the defense motion. Typos were likely copied verbatim from source material (e.g. “Baudendistal,” “alco-lithiums,” “in side”), but it is entirely possible that I introduced a few of my own. For a refresher on key factors in the incident, here’s a blog post summary and an extensive story.

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UCLA, Harran arraignment in Sheri Sangji case again delayed

Fourth time, same as the first: Arraignment of the University of California, Los Angeles, and chemistry professor Patrick Harran for felony violations of California labor laws has been postponed once more, reports C&EN SCENE editor Michael Torrice. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji three years ago after a fire in Harran’s lab.

Today, the judge first met with all the lawyers out of the courtroom. When they returned, she scheduled a status check-in with the attorneys on July 2 and “plea and arraignment” on July 13, Torrice says.

For those trying to keep track, the defendants previously appeared together to request postponement on Feb. 2, March 7, and April 11. UCLA had one additional prior arraignment date on Jan. 12.


Historical accidents at Caltech, via Linus Pauling’s notebooks

Via frequent commenter qvxb, Oregon State University has scans of the lab notebooks of alumnus Linus Pauling available online, and they include descriptions of at least two lab accidents at Caltech.

One, on August 10, 1939, was an ether explosion:

Today, at about 8:30 am, Mr. Leo Brewer (on appointment as assistant for the summer at $40 a month) was preparing absolute ether in Room 351 (large organic lab.) and had an explosion. He had 40 liters of ether there. The explosion blew out all the windows and wrecked the hoods and chemical desks in the room, and caused some damage in adjoining rooms. Brewer was burned slightly. Total damage to laboratory and equipment about $14000.00

Brewer told me that he and Shei were wiping up some ether that he had spilled, and had wiped it all up when the explosion occurred. No flames were about (he used steam for the distillation). The source of fire is unknown. Shei had just stepped out into the hallway when the explosion occurred.

Koepfli heard the explosion at his home, nearly a mile away.

Another, on Thursday, Sept. 23, 1943, involved a fatal exposure to ethylchloroformate:

Shortly after 1 pm Mrs Elizabeth Swingle, Crellin Stockroom Keeper, was showered wtih ethylchlorocarbonate (ethylchloroformate, C2H5OCOCl) in the sub-basement near the elevator, perhaps because of pressure in the bottle, which contained CaCO3 as stabilizer. [William] Lipscomb heard her call, and took her under shower (cold water) in 058. Miss Rooke and Swingle, Lipscomb, Trueblood treated her with sodium bicarbonate, removed clothes, and showered her again. Lucas had ammonia put on the floor. The Pasadena Fire Dept Truck (Captain Baker) pumped air out. I arrived at 3 pm – Col. Wyman and Dr. Koepfli were in charge. At 4 pm subbasement was clear, and I dismissed the trucks. I had been at home – reached lab at 3:15.

Koepfli told Miss Rooke, Lipscomb, David Shoemaker, and Trueblood to lie down and call the doctor if any symptoms develop.

Koepfli will make a report on the accident.

Mrs. Swingle is in the Huntington Hospital, under care of Dr. Kremers.
Sept. 24, 1943. Mrs. Swingle died last night, after about 8 hours.

At 4 pm Koepfli told Dr. Kremers over the phone, in my hearing, that the treatment should be as for phosgene.

According to an obituary, Elizabeth Swingle had trained as a bacteriologist and was the wife of chemist Stanley Swingle.

Lab accidents aside, I could probably spend days poking around Pauling’s notebooks. If any Safety Zone readers take the time to do so themselves, report back what you found most interesting!

UCLA, Harran arraignment deferred yet again in Sheri Sangji case

The University of California, Los Angeles, and chemistry professor Patrick Harran were scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon on felony charges for violating California labor laws, but the court proceeding has once again been postponed. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji three years ago after a fire in Harran’s lab. Arraignment is now scheduled for June 7, reports C&EN SCENE editor Michael Torrice.

As in past hearings, the delay came at the request of the defense. Torrice adds that the judge indicated that this delay would be the last. Arraignment was already put off three times for the university and twice for Harran.

Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, attended the hearing today and says that a preliminary plea deal was offered to the defendants on Monday. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said in recent opinions that plea bargains are now so central to the justice system that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” adding that “ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas” (federal statistics source, state statistics source, via NPR).

ETA: The Los Angeles Time story from today’s hearing says that “Judge Shelly Torrealba ordered professor Patrick Harran and lawyers for the regents back into court June 7, effectively setting a deadline for them to reach a plea agreement with prosecutors.” Here are the judge’s exact words, per C&EN’s Torrice:

My understanding is the request at this time of the parties is to continue the arraignment one last time, as I understand it, to June 7. We will then proceed with arraignment at that time. Is that the request of the parties?