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Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day two

With Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran appeared in court again on Monday to continue a preliminary hearing regarding felony charges of labor code violations relating to the death of lab researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in 2009.

A bit more background on the case can be found with the recap of the first day of testimony in the hearing.

The only witness to testify on day two was Brian Baudendistel, an investigator with the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health’s (Cal/OSHA’s) Bureau of Investigations. Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations is charged, in part, with conducting criminal investigations in cases of workplace death. Baudendistel authored a report sent to the district attorney’s office recommending manslaughter charges in the case.

In a motion filed in court in July, Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, challenged the credibility of Baudendistel, alleging that he was convicted as a teenager of a 1985 murder.

Where that challenge stands now is an open question. At the start of Monday’s hearing, the attorneys and court reporter retreated to Judge Lisa B. Lench’s chambers. When they returned, Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum called Baudendistel to the stand, with no objection from O’Brien.

Under questioning by Hum, Baudendistel said that he was assigned to the case on Jan. 23, 2009, after his agency was notified of Sangji’s death. He subsequently interviewed various witnesses, subpoenaed documents from UCLA, and reviewed photographs.

Hum went on to ask Baudendistel to recap his interview with Harran. Baudendistel said that he established that Harran is in charge of the research and overall operation of his lab, as well as training of personnel. Harran hired Sangji in October, 2008, to run what Baudendistel thought was a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry instrument. Sangji had graduated from Pomona College the previous spring with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

According to Baudendistel’s interview recap, Harran said he was told that general university safety training was not available for Sangji and that he would be responsible for safety training. Harran said that he would normally assign a postdoc to oversee someone of Sangji’s level of experience. He mentioned postdoc Paul Hurley but Hurley was involved in other matters so no one was assigned to train Sangji. Harran discussed his expectations with Sangji and told her that, if she had questions, to seek out others in the lab, Baudendistel said.

When Sangji was injured, she was using tert-butyllithium to generate vinyllithium. She had done the experiment once before at smaller scale in October, 2008. Baudendistel said that Harran was unaware of the October experiment at the time Sangji did it, but he learned of it later and was aware that Sangji was doing the experiment at larger scale on the day of the fire.

Baudendistel said that Harran told him that the lab followed Aldrich Technical Bulletin AL-134 for handling air-sensitive reagents in a general sense, but that there were some things done differently. Harran discussed none of the bulletin, the nature and characteristics of tert-butyllithium, nor how to handle the chemical with Sangji. Harran was not aware of anyone else in the lab doing so, either, Baudendistel said.

Baudendistel then recapped what Harran told him about how the incident unfolded. The testimony largely agreed with a previous report by C&EN. When Harran returned to the lab after following Sangji to the emergency room, he quenched the reaction at the request of fire department officials. He was unable to tell how far Sangji had proceeded in the reaction, although there was some vinyllithium in the reaction flask, Baudendistel said. Harran noted that the needle on the syringe was only two inches long and too short to reach the top of the liquid even when the tert-butyllithium bottle was full. There was also no clamp for the bottle. Sangji would therefore have had to hold the bottle tilted in one hand to extract the reagent while manipulating the syringe with the other hand, which was “not ideal,” Baudendistel said.

According to Baudendistel, Harran said that using a plastic syringe was acceptable and thought that the size of the syringe was “pushing it.” Sangji was transferring a total of 159 mL of tert-butyllithium using a 60-mL syringe.

Baudendistel said that Harran didn’t have fire-resistant clothing available in the lab and was not aware that it was required for handling tert-butyllithium. Harran said that people sometimes failed to wear lab coats in the lab and he did not always reprimand them for it, Baudendistel testified.

Hum then asked Baudendistel to recap his interview with Chris Lutton, a deputy fire marshal at UCLA. Baudendistel’s testimony agreed with what C&EN has already reported regarding emergency response to the fire and allegations of scene tampering.

Hum asked Baudendistel to recap his interviews with postdocs Wei­feng Chen and Hui Ding and graduate student Andrew Roberts. Baudendistel’s testimony again agreed with details already reported. All three told Baudendistel that Hui Ding was the only person to regularly wear a lab coat. Roberts had observed Harran not say anything to people not wearing lab coats.

And Hum asked Baudendistel to recap his interview with Michael Wheatley, the chemical safety officer for the UCLA chemistry and biochemistry department when the fire happened. Wheatley conducted an inspection of the lab on Oct. 30, 2008, and observed people not wearing lab coats. Wheatley told Roberts that personnel needed to wear lab coats in lab, Baudendistel said.

That was the extent of the testimony on Monday. The judge scheduled the hearing to resume again today, Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 1:30 p.m. Pacific.

Other coverage since yesterday’s post:
News outlets – Associated Press (by Linda Deutsch, who also covered the trials of O.J. Simpson, Charles Manson, William Kennedy Smith, and Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood)
Blogs – Chemjobber, Chemjobber’s Storify on ill-fitting lab coats, Science Careers

Update: Click through for the day three recap, and day four. The hearing will continue on Dec. 17.
December update: Day five and day six of testimony.

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