A UCLA chemistry professor pleaded not guilty Wednesday to three felony counts stemming from a December 2008 laboratory fire that caused the death of a staff research assistant.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Shelly Torrealba ordered Patrick Harran—who was arraigned over the defense's objection—to return to court Oct. 9 for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.
Harran, 43, is charged with three counts of willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing the death of an employee. The charges stem from a Dec. 29, 2008, fire that resulted in the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji about two and a half weeks later.
Harran was charged last December along with the Regents of the University of California.
UCLA issued a statement noting that Chancellor Gene Block "has pledged UCLA's strong support for Harran and ongoing commitment to providing for his defense."
On July 27, criminal charges against the UC regents were dismissed as the result of an "enforcement agreement" that called for corrective measures.
"Professor Harran is not responsible for this horrific accident," said Charles Robinson, vice president and general counsel for the University of California, after the hearing in July. "Justice is not served by the criminal prosecution of Professor Harran. We will continue to provide for Professor Harran's defense and help him fight to clear his name."
The conditions of the agreement between the UC regents and the prosecution include the regents' acknowledgment and acceptance of "responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated on Dec. 29, 2008" and agreement that none of its representatives or executive employees will make any public statement denying responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated that day.
It also calls for the establishment of a $500,000 scholarship in the name of the research assistant at UC Berkeley's law school, where the 23-year-old woman had been admitted just before her death.
Sangji—who was not wearing a lab coat—suffered second- and third-degree burns as she was transferring a highly flammable chemical agent, tert-Butyllithium, when it spilled from a syringe and onto her hands, arms and body and ignited, according to the agreement. She died 18 days later as a result of her injuries.
The agreement additionally calls on UCLA to pay Cal/OSHA's costs for inspections conducted before the agreement and for the regents to comply with a series of terms that include requiring all existing laboratory personnel to complete a laboratory safety training program and the use of laboratory coats while working on or adjacent to all hazardous chemicals, biological or unsealed radiological materials.
Harran's attorney, Thomas P. O'Brien, told reporters outside court in July that Sangji's death was an "unspeakable tragedy."
"... What happened in that laboratory was an accident, not a crime," O'Brien said at the time. "While we all wish this terrible tragedy had not occurred, there is no reasonable explanation for this prosecution and it's been flawed from the start."
Harran faces four and a half years in prison of convicted of the charges, according to the District Attorney's Office.
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