By Michael Torrice
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge today denied three defense motions that could have dismissed a criminal case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. With the rulings going against the defense, the case moves closer to trial. The judge set the next court date for Oct. 3. Harran could go to trial within 60 days of that date.
Harran faces four felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab. In November and December, 2012, Judge Lisa B. Lench heard testimony in a preliminary hearing on the case. She ruled in April that there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial. After the preliminary hearing, the case was sent to Judge George G. Lomeli for trial.
Before today’s hearing, Harran’s attorneys submitted three motions: one asking the judge for a so-called Franks hearing, another called a demurrer, and a third to dismiss the charges based on lack of probable cause. The district attorney’s office replied to each motion, and the defense then responded in writing to those replies.
In court today, the judge started by asking the defense and prosecution to go to chambers to discuss the Franks hearing motion. The hearing is often used to throw out warrants, such as search or arrest warrants, on the grounds that the police or district attorney obtained the warrant using false statements. In this case, the defense argued that Harran deserved such a hearing in part because David Higuera, a senior investigator for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, allegedly omitted key information from his affidavit for an arrest warrant for Harran.
The Franks hearing arguments were filed under seal and parts were redacted. The reason for the redactions and the judge’s request to hear arguments in his chambers could be because the motion may involve an alleged juvenile criminal history of California Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigator Brian A. Baudendistel. The investigator’s report formed the basis of Higuera’s affidavit. Harran’s defense team argued last summer that a conviction for a 1985 murder, when Baudendistel would have been 16, would undermine the inspector’s credibility.
The judge denied the Franks hearing motion in his chambers and did not discuss his reasoning in open court.
Next, Judge Lomeli heard arguments from defense attorney John J. O’Kane IV on the demurrer motion. A demurrer asks a judge to dismiss a case because the charges have no basis in law, according to Nolo.
Part of the defense’s argument centered on the wordings of the labor code statute and occupational safety and health regulations in the case. The defense argued that the regulations do not apply to Harran, because the University of California was Sangji’s employer, not Harran.
Harran faces four counts of violating California Labor Code section 6425(a), which makes it a crime for “Any employer and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of any employment, place of employment, or of any other employee” to willfully violate an occupational safety or health standard in such a way that causes death or permanent or prolonged impairment of the body of an employee. Each charge refers to a certain regulation: Title 8, sections 5191(f)(4), 3203(a)(6), 3383(a), and 3383(b).
O’Kane argued that because the labor code statute describes no specific actions, then the judge should consider the individual regulations to determine if they applied to Harran. Sections 5191 and 3203 refer to employers only, O’Kane argued, and the two parts of section 3383 make no mention of whom they apply to. None of the regulations mentions supervisors, which the defense argued was Harran’s role.
When the judge denied the demurrer motion, he disagreed with both defense arguments. He said he believed Harran was an employer based on the fact that Harran could recruit, hire, and fire people. He went on to say that even if Harran wasn’t an employer, the four regulations also apply to supervisors.
After hearing arguments on the demurrer motion, the judge then allowed the defense to argue its motion for dismissal of charges. Defense attorney Daniel Prince focused on two points: Harran didn’t willfully violate the labor code statute because he didn’t know what was required of him, and Harran thought Sangji was trained to handle tert-butyllithium based on her resume and observing her carry out procedures with air-sensitive compounds. tert-Butyllithium ignites spontaneously when it comes into contact with air. The lab fire started when Sangji was using a syringe to transfer the compound. The plunger came out of the syringe barrel, exposing the solution to air.
Judge Lomeli denied this motion as well, stating that the district attorney’s evidence “managed to establish the requisite burden of proof of a ‘strong suspicion’” that Harran committed the charged crimes. He pointed out that the case had not reached a stage in which the district attorney had to prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The judge explained his ruling further, stating that a willful violation of the labor code requires only that a person act intentionally, and does not take into account the person’s motive or ignorance of their obligations. He also said that Harran’s assumption that Sangji had the proper training did not relieve Harran of his responsibility to determine that Sangji was actually capable of handling tert-butyllithium.