The UC Board of Regents was cleared of all criminal charges on Friday in connection with the 2009 death of a UCLA staff research assistant ““ but a UCLA chemistry professor still faces three felony counts.
The regents struck a plea deal with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office that drops charges brought in relation to the death of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, the researcher who received fatal burns in a 2008 lab fire at UCLA, in exchange for a few measures. The agreement includes improved lab safety programs across UC campuses and the creation of a $500,000 scholarship at the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law for students studying environmental law in Sangji’s name, according to the agreement. Sangji had received an acceptance letter to the school before her death.
“(The district attorney’s decision) is what we have been working towards,” said Kevin Reed, UCLA vice chancellor of legal affairs. “(Sangji’s death) was a tragedy but not a crime and never should have been charged as a crime. We are trying to look forward.”
Charges were first filed against the regents and Sangji’s supervisor Patrick Harran, a UCLA organic chemistry professor, on Dec. 27, 2011.
Nearly three years before the filing, Sangji suffered second- and third-degree burns on Dec. 29, 2008 in a UCLA lab. While handling t-butyl lithium, a highly flammable, air-sensitive chemical, the stopper of Sangji’s syringe came undone and the liquid spilled out and ignited her sweater, which was not covered by a lab coat.
She died 18 days later, in January 2009, from injuries incurred in the fire.
The university and Harran were charged with failing to provide proper chemical safety training and processes to correct unsafe work environments in a timely manner. They were also charged with failing to enforce proper clothing during work with hazardous chemicals, according to the felony complaint.
The agreement reached Friday states that the regents “acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated on Dec. 29, 2008.”
But criminal charges have not been dropped against Harran, who faces more than four years in prison if convicted of the charges.
UCLA administrators plan to remain in support of the chemistry professor and will continue providing for his defense, according to a university statement released Friday.
“The regents and Harran are different types of cases, so it is not shocking that (the regents) are being treated differently,” Reed said. “But (Harran’s charges are) an injustice.”
The district attorney’s office declined to comment beyond the agreement and a press release, neither of which clarified why Harran was not included in the plea deal struck with the regents.
Harran appeared in court on Friday to hear the formal reading of his charges, but the reading was postponed for a fifth time to allow the judge time to consider new evidence that could alter the outcome of the case, said Thomas O’Brien, Harran’s attorney.
Among the new evidence is a claim that the chief investigator from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, whose 2009 criminal investigation into Sangji’s death has been the main support for the district attorney’s case, was involved in a murder as a teenager.
Brian Baudendistel, the chief investigator who found UCLA and Harran responsible for Sangji’s death in his report, has the same name, birth date and fingerprints as a man who admitted to the murder in 1985, O’Brien said.
Harran’s attorneys are planning to use this evidence to bring the investigator’s honesty into question and ultimately show that the report is invalid, he said.
Baudendistel, however, told the Los Angeles Times last week that it was a different person of the same name who committed the murder.
Harran is set to appear in court on Sept. 5.
Compiled by Kylie Reynolds, Bruin senior staff. Contributing reports by Erin Donnelly, Bruin senior staff.