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Facing felony charges in lab death of Sheri Sangji, UCLA settles, Harran stretches credulity.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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There have been recent developments in the criminal case against UCLA and chemistry professor Patrick Harran in connection with the fatal laboratory accident that resulted in the death of Sheri Sangji (which we’ve discussed here and here). The positive development is that UCLA has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors. (CORRECTION: UCLA has reached a settlement agreement with the prosecutors, not a plea agreement. Sorry for the confusion.) However, Patrick Harran’s legal strategy has taken a turn that strikes me as ill-advised.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Half of the felony charges stemming from a 2008 lab accident that killed UCLA research assistant Sheri Sangji were dropped Friday when the University of California regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in her name.

“The regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory operated on Dec. 29, 2008,” the agreement read in part, referring to the date that Sangji, 23, suffered fatal burns.

Charges remain against her supervisor, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. His arraignment was postponed to Sept. 5 to allow the judge to consider defense motions, including one challenging the credibility of the state’s chief investigator on the case. …

UCLA and Harran have called her death a tragic accident and said she was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear a protective lab coat. …

In court papers this week, Harran’s lawyers said prosecutors had matched the fingerprints of Brian Baudendistel, a senior special investigator who handled the case for the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, with the prints of a teenager who pleaded no contest to murder in Northern California in 1985.

The defense contends that the investigator, whose report formed the basis for the charges, is the same Brian A. Baudendistel who took part in a plot to rob a drug dealer of $3,000 worth of methamphetamine, then shot him. Another teenager admitted to pulling the trigger but said it was Baudendistel’s shotgun.

Baudendistel told The Times this week that it is a case of mistaken identity and that he is not the individual involved in the 1985 case.

Cal/OSHA defended the integrity of the investigation in a statement issued Friday by spokesman Dean Fryer.

“The defendants’ most recent attempt to deflect attention from the charges brought against them simply does not relate in any way to the circumstances of Ms. Sangji’s death or the actual evidence collected in Cal/OSHA’s comprehensive investigation,” it read.

Deborah Blum adds:

Should  chemist-in-training approach hazardous chemicals with extreme caution? Yes. Should she expect her employer to provide her with the necessary information and equipment to engage in such caution? Most of us would argue yes. Should chemistry professors be held to the standard of employee safety as, say, chemical manufacturers or other industries? The most important “yes” to that question comes from  Cal/OSHA senior  investigator Brian Baudendistal.

Baudendistal concluded that the laboratory operation was careless enough for long enough to justify felony charges of willful negligence.  The Sangji family, angered by those suggestions that Sheri’s experience should have taught her better, pushed for prosecution. Late last year the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office  officially brought charges against Harran, UCLA, and the University of California system itself. …

[Harran's] lawyers have responded to the Baudendistal report in part by focusing on Baudendistal himself. They claim to have found evidence that in 1985 he and two friends conspired to set up the murder of a drug dealer. All three boys were convicted and although, since they were juveniles, the records were sealed, attorneys were able to identify the killers through press coverage at the time. Although Baudendistal has insisted that Harran’s defense team tracked down the wrong man, they say they have a fingerprint match to prove it. They say further that a man who covers up his past history is not credible – and therefore neither is is report on the UCLA laboratory.

I am not a lawyer, so I’m not terribly interested in speculating on the arcane legal considerations that might be driving this move by Harran’s legal team. (Chemjobber speculates that it might be a long shot they’re playing amid plea negotiations that are not going well.)

As someone with a professional interest in crime and punishment within scientific communities, and in ethics more broadly, I do, however, think it’s worth examining the logic of Patrick Harran’s legal strategy.

The strategy, as I understand it, is to cast aspersions on the Cal/OSHA report on the basis of the legal history of the senior investigator that prepared it — specifically, his alleged involvement as a teenager in 1985 in a murder plot.

Does a past bad act like this serve as prima facie reason to doubt the accuracy of the report of the investigation of conditions in Harran’s lab? It’s not clear how it could, especially if there were other investigators on the team, not alleged to be involved in such criminal behavior, who endorsed the claims in the report.

Unless, of course, the reason Harran’s legal team thinks we should doubt the accuracy of the report is that the senior investigator who prepared it is a habitual liar. To support the claim that he cannot be trusted, they point to a single alleged lie — denying involvement in the 1985 murder plot.

But this strikes me as a particularly dangerous strategy for Patrick Harran to pursue.

Essentially, the strategy rests on the claim that if a person has lied about some particular issue, we should assume that any claim that person makes, about whatever issue, might also be a lie. I’m not unsympathetic to this claim — trust is something that is earned, not simply assumed in the absence of clear evidence of dishonesty.

However, this same reasoning cannot help Patrick Harran’s credibility, given that he is on record describing Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old with a bachelor’s degree, as an experienced chemist. Many have noted already that claiming Sheri Sangji was a experienced chemist is ridiculous on its face.

Thus, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Patrick Harran lied when he described Sheri Sangji as an experienced chemist. And, if this is the case, following the reasoning advocated by his legal team, we must doubt the credibility of every other claim he has made — including claims about the safety training he did or did not provide to people in his lab, conditions in his lab in 2008 when the fatal accident happened, even whether he recommended that Sangji wear a lab coat.

If Patrick Harran was not lying when he said he believed Sheri Sangji was an experienced chemist, the other possibility is that he is incredibly stupid — certainly too stupid to be in charge of a lab where people work with potentially hazardous chemicals.

Some might posit that Harran’s claims about Sangji’s chemical experience were made on the advice of his legal team. That may well be, but I’m unclear on how lying on the advice of counsel is any less a lie. (If it is, this might well mitigate the “lie of omission” of an investigator advised by his lawyers that his juvenile record is sealed.) And if one lie is all it takes to decimate credibility, Harran is surely as vulnerable as Baudendistel.

Finally, a piece of free advice to PIs worrying that they may find themselves facing criminal charges should their students, postdocs, or technicians choose not to wear lab coats or other safety gear: It is perfectly reasonable to establish, and enforce, a lab policy that states that those choosing to opt out of the required safety equipment are also opting out of access to the laboratory.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. matthartings 9:36 am 08/1/2012

    Thanks for continuing to write about this, Janet. Sangji deserves better out of the justice system, her research supervisor, and her university employer.

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  2. 2. aidel 10:17 am 08/1/2012

    I just love it when you break it down! Good stuff. Thanks.

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  3. 3. SteveDG 5:11 pm 08/1/2012

    The homemaker will read the admonition on a can of bug spray, a painter will read the same on a can of paint thinner and a police officer will wear a bullet proof vest when needed. Would it be unreasonable to expect a lab technician with several years experience to make a simple internet inquiry regarding the safe handling of T-butyl Lithium.
    Harran made mistakes. It appears that Baudendistal made mistakes. Sangji made mistakes– it was her decision to not wear a lab coat. We sympathize and we learn.

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  4. 4. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 7:08 pm 08/1/2012

    Would it be unreasonable for the PI in whose lab the T-butyl Lithium is being handled to take responsibility for making sure members of his lab understood its safe handling? I’d hope a professor of chemistry would be a more reliable source on this score than the internet — especially since he bears responsibility for safe working conditions for his employees.

    Also, at 23 Sheri Sangji hardly had “several” years of experience. She had maybe a few, as an undergraduate. I daresay it was reasonable for her to expect that the PI employing her would keep her appraised of the actual level of risk of her activities, and convey the absolute necessity of taking particular safety measures. It’s not at all clear that Patrick Harran met those reasonable expectations.

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  5. 5. SteveDG 8:40 pm 08/1/2012

    I am under the impression that the primary oversight was not wearing protective clothing while handling hazardous material. This is so basic to lab work that a reminder would seem unnessary. A secondary factor was the failure of the syringe to perform as designed. This suggests that either the syringe was not inspected before being used or the plunger was accidentally withdrawn incorrectly. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems very likely that the young victim failed to properly control what was under her control. There must be some personal responsibility.

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  6. 6. Carol G. 11:38 pm 08/1/2012

    I have been following this case as it is in my field of occupational health and safety. I worked at a large R&D lab, DOEnergy, which required experimenters to have an experimental review of the intended project. The reviewers would be colleagues of the experimenters, plus their division’s safety coordinator, and corporate environment, health and safety personnel. I’m sure someone would have asked about the reactivity of the chemical and/or the use of a syringe in a chemical fume hood. In industrial hygiene, we ask whether something safer could be substituted.

    Sadly, it does not appear any review was done. This was quite a hazardous material to be working with for a newly minted chemistry grad. The principal investigator should have been on his toes and watching her more closely.

    As bad as this was, it isn’t the last time the lack of lab safety, especially in academic institutions, will be in the news. Take a survey of the credentials of the people in the institutions who have the responsibility for chemicals and safety, assuming anyone does. It isn’t impressive.

    Carol Giles, MPH, CIH, CSP

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