Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 3 of preliminary hearings: Neal Langerman testifies

From the AP's report on Day 3 of the preliminary hearing for the charges against Professor Patrick Harran stemming from the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in January 2009, chemical safety expert Dr. Neal Langerman testifies:
Under questioning by Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Marguerite Rizzo, Langerman said Sangji should not have been handling the chemical tert-Butyllithium without specific training and study of instructions provided by its manufacturer. He said the chemical is highly flammable if it comes in contact with oxygen. 
Asked about Sangji's background, Langerman said, "She absolutely did not have sufficient skill, knowledge or training to be handling tert-Butyllithium." 
He said the 23-year-old, who had a bachelor's degree in chemistry, never worked with the chemical until she came to UCLA. Equipment in the lab was inadequate and technicians were not provided with protective clothing, he said.
In addition, Sangji made errors in procedure, Langerman said, adding that the accident was predictable and preventable. 
"When you ask an untrained person to deal with a high-risk task, something bad is going to happen," he said.
It's interesting to note that Dr. Langerman has said from the beginning that a blast shield would be recommended in working with tert-butyllithium. This is a recommendation that almost certainly is not being followed in US academic chemistry laboratories. (One wonders about the cost/benefit of this recommendation -- is the extra protection worth the awkwardness?)

...And attending the hearing, our favorite PR fl Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs, sent to cover UCLA's protect UCLA's image:
Outside court, Kevin Reed, an attorney for UCLA who is observing the case, said: "The fundamental thing is this was a terrible tragedy. Dr. Langerman's testimony has not done anything to convert what was a tragedy into a crime."
(Mr. Reed failed to note that Dr. Langerman demolished his argument that Sheri Sangji was "an experienced and skilled chemist.") Lawyers -- you gotta love 'em.

UPDATE: The C&EN team has weighed in with its more detailed report on Day 3, based on Dr. Langerman's testimony. New facts/facets of the case:\
  • The Harran defense team objected to not questioning Dr. Langerman's experience in investigating past laboratory accidents; the judge ruled that the defense will be able to cross-examine him on this issue. (See C&EN's Michael Torrice in the comments on this issue.)
  • Dr. Langerman testified that Ms. Sangji performed titrations of the tBuLi before the fatal reaction. 
  • Dr. Langerman noted that the plunger problem likely happened after Ms. Sangji had successfully transferred the first portion of tBuLi. 
This is as good as a time as any to link again to Aldrich technical bulletin AL-134, which instructs the student on safe transfer of pyrophoric reagents. 

Also, Dr. Langerman will return for cross-examination on December 18, 2012. 


  1. Just to clarify RE the defense objection: The objection was mostly on technical grounds. O'Brien objected that the previous questions in the hearing didn't establish Langerman as an expert at reconstructing the events leading up to a lab accident. The judge allowed O'Brien to question Langerman then and there about Langerman's past investigations, before Rizzo continued her line of questions.

    1. Did O'Brien do so? What questions did he ask?

    2. He did. He asked Langerman how many accidents he'd investigated, in particular how many at universities, and when those investigations occurred.

    3. So, to what degree Langerman is aware of the safety conditions in academia? Would he acknowledge the fact that Harran's lab was exactly like every other academic lab as far as safety is concerned?

    4. "I have come to the disheartening conclusion that most academic laboratories are unsafe venues for work and study." --Neal Langerman (2009)

    5. Right, but did he say it in court?

    6. He'll get asked this in December, no doubt. Doubtful prosecution would ask this question, and Langerman doesn't get to answer (I think) questions that weren't asked.

  2. Kevin S. Reed: "A civil rights lawyer by training, from 1996 through 2004, Reed was a partner at Strumwasser & Woocher LLP, a Santa Monica law firm, where he successfully challenged the state of California’s distribution of funds for school construction, resulting in $600 million in state funding for LAUSD. He previously spent six years as the managing attorney for the western regional office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., in Los Angeles. Reed received his J.D. degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School and his B.A. with distinction, from the University of Virginia. He is a member of the California, New York and Massachusetts state bars."

    Huh, funny, nothing in there about being an expert on fire injury or chemical safety. Why does the AP keep running back to him for quotes? Maybe we should have a horribly burned lab tech at the front of the courthouse to answer questions.

  3. From Torrice's account, it sounds like the prosecution is going after Harran's argument that Sangji was a trained, experienced chemist. As someone who's used tBuLi, the description of her handling of it sounds like an accident waiting to happen. I'm curious how often Harran's group used. If Sangji was using standard group procedure I'm surprised there hasn't been a problem before.

    --Unstable Isotope