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.
Robert Hernandez, arson investigator, City of Los Angeles Fire Department
Questioned by Craig Hum:
Hernandez was one of two investigators who interviewed Sangji in the UCLA Medical Center emergency room immediately after the fire on Dec. 29, 2008. He testified that his partner, William Zlendick, asked the questions and Hernandez listened to the answers. Hernandez said that Sangji told them she was working with a chemical that ignites when exposed to air, she was using a syringe to draw it out of the container, and “she pulled the syringe too far and it came out of the base of the syringe and it flashed on her.” She also told them that she had a container of hexane that spilled and also “flashed.” “Flashed” was Hernandez’s term; Sangji said that the chemicals started the fire and caught her clothing on fire, he said. The name of the chemical as documented in Zlendick’s report is “Pertbutylllithium,” which Zlendick “spelled as best he could,” Hernandez said. (The actual chemical was tert-butyllithium.)
O’Brien asked Hernandez to clarify whether Sangji pulled the syringe out too far or the plunger out too far, and Hernandez said she pulled the plunger out of the syringe. O’Brien also asked Hernandez to confirm that Sangji was aware that the chemical would spontaneously ignite in air (yes), and that it had spilled and caused her clothes to catch fire (yes). On further questioning, Hernandez said that he had not observed Sangji’s clothing, and he knows that a polyester-blend sweater is flammable.
O’Brien’s final question related to the conclusion of the report, which is that Sangji “accidentally exposed air-reactive chemicals to the ambient air resulting in burning of her clothing and body” and whether Hernandez agreed with that conclusion. “Yes, I’m of the opinion that she didn’t do this on purpose,” Hernandez said.
Peter H. Grossman, medical director, Grossman Burn Centers
Grossman became Sangji’s doctor when she was transferred from the UCLA Medical Center to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif., on the day of the fire. The defense objected to having the doctor testify, with O’Brien saying that “his testimony is not relevant to any of the proceedings before the court right now,” and that the defense was willing to stipulate that Sangji died from her burns. Hum responded that, if the judge doesn’t dismiss the charges at the end of the hearing, he anticipates that the defense will request that the judge reduce the charges. The nature and extent of Sangji’s injuries, and what happened to her during the 18 days between the fire and her death, is relevant to the decisions the judge may have to make, Hum said. O’Brien confirmed that he planned to move to dismiss or reduce the charges. Judge Lench allowed Grossman to testify.
Questioned by Marguerite Rizzo:
Grossman first described generally the different types of burns and how the body reacts to the trauma. In short: The skin has two layers, the outer epidermis and deeper dermis. The epidermis is the protective layer and the dermis is the layer that does the “cellular work”—the dermis is where oil glands, blood vessels, and regenerative cells are located. First degree burns affect the epidermis only. Second degree burns affect the epidermis and dermis, and can be more superficial (like first degree) or deeper (like third degree). Third degree burns take out all of the structural and cellular support of the dermis. When skin is burned, the body loses its primary defense against infection. The body’s response to burns includes swelling of tissues as the body works to get white blood cells into the affected areas. But because burned tissue is not elastic, the influx of fluid can interfere with circulation in the swollen areas—or, in the case of a burn around the torso, can interfere with breathing and blood supply to internal organs. Burns often get worse in the time immediately following injury.
Grossman then went over Sangji’s injuries in detail, and Rizzo showed 20 photographs of Sangji. Grossman initially evaluated Sangji as having burns over 45% of her body—her neck, both arms and hands, front and back torso, and thighs. Much of the burned area was deep second- and third-degree burns, and Grossman said that Sangi experienced “quite a bit of pain.” Grossman made two incisions in Sangji’s abdomen and one in her right arm to allow the areas to expand. Subsequently, he performed three surgeries called debridements to scrape away dead tissue and reveal healthy tissue. At the end of each surgery, the doctors covered Sangji’s wounds with cadaver skin to encourage healing and new blood vessel development. The goal was to get the wounds to the point that Sangji’s doctors could graft her own skin over the burned areas.
After the first surgery, Grossman revised his estimate of the total area of burns to 48.5% of her body. By the third surgery, two weeks after the fire, Sangji was showing signs of sepsis and was not breathing on her own. Her heart stopped in the operating room and she was resuscitated. A neurologist later determined that Sangji was brain dead. She was removed from life support and died on Jan. 16, 2009.
O’Brien asked why there were so many photos of Sangji’s injuries, and Grossman replied that photos are taken in all cases as part of the medical record, to help with care, and to use as an educational tool for doctors and the public. O’Brien also asked which investigators Grossman had spoken with and when, and Grossman said he didn’t recall specifics.
O’Brien also asked Grossman to clarify the estimates of Sangji’s injuries. Grossman said that when she was first evaluated, the deepest burns covered about 25% of her body, but the more superficial ones worsened as time went on. Ultimately, all of her burns became full-thickness. The defense attorney also asked Grossman to discuss the severity of burns on Sangji’s back. The doctor said some of Sangji’s most severe burns were on her lower back. Nevertheless, Grossman said he’d expected Sangji would survive her injuries and was “quite surprised” that she died. When O’Brien asked Grossman why Sangji’s heart stopped, he said it was the cumulative amount of trauma that her body had gone through, plus the trauma of surgery. He said that going into the third surgery, the medical team was between a rock and a hard place—the team knew that overall she was not stable, but that without more debridement to remove dead tissue, she was not going to improve.
O’Brien wrapped up by asking what Sangji had told Grossman about the incident. Grossman said Sangji told him when she arrived at the burn center that she’d been working in lab with “lithium,” which spilled and ignited, and her clothing caught on fire. He did not know specifically what type of sweater Sangji was wearing. He said Sangji’s burns were consistent with clothing catching on fire. O’Brien asked if Grossman could determine how much of Sangji’s burns came from the chemical versus her clothing, but Grossman said that he couldn’t do so.
On re-direct questioning by Rizzo, Grossman said that he can differentiate, for example, a scald burn from a flame burn because skin from fire appears “sooty.” But once the skin is destroyed and injured, he can’t tell whether someone was wearing clothing or not.
Vadims Poukens, deputy medical examiner, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner
Questioned by Craig Hum:
Poukens testified that he did the autopsy on Sangji on Jan. 17, 2009. He determined that the cause of her death was complications of thermal burns.
O’Brien asked whether Poukens noticed anything unusual about Sangji’s heart during the autopsy or whether he could tell whether the heart had stopped during a surgical proceeding. Poukens said no. O’Brien also asked whether Poukens dissected Sangji’s brain. Poukens said he did not dissect her brain because he thought the cause of death was already known from the information he had, dissection of her other organs, and examination of the thermal burns on her skin.
The hearing will resume today, Monday, Nov. 19, at 1:30 p.m. Pacific.