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Arraignment in death of UCLA researcher delayed again

Judge grants third and final defense request to delay the arraignment of a UCLA professor and the UC Board of Regents on felony charges stemming from the 2008 lab fire. Plea negotiations are underway.

April 12, 2012|By Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times
  • UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in court in February 2012; his arraignment on felony charges in connection with a lab fire has been postponed for the third time.
UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in court in February 2012; his… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Wednesday granted a third — and final — defense request to delay the arraignment of a UCLA chemistry professor and the UC Board of Regents on felony charges stemming from a 2008 lab fire that killed a staff research assistant.

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 on charges in the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.

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 the regents are charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in Sangji's death. It is believed to be the first such criminal case involving an academic lab accident.

Harran and the regents are accused of failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, to require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training. Harran faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted. The regents could be fined $4.5 million.

UCLA officials have called Sangji's death a tragic accident, saying she was an experienced chemist and trained in the experiment that went awry. A Cal-OSHA investigative report disputed those contentions.

Sangji's family and the union that represented her have urged the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to prosecute the felony charges.

"We are very, very disappointed that it has been delayed yet again," said Sangji's older sister, Naveen Sangji. "It has already been four months since the charges were filed, and we would like to see the matter proceed."

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have confirmed the plea negotiations, but will not disclose details.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

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