Monday, November 19, 2012

What is the strategy of the Harran defense?

C&EN reporters Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice are covering the second day of the preliminary hearing of Professor Patrick Harran on charges stemming from the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in January 2009. Jyllian has a nice summary of the point of a preliminary hearing: "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." Her summary post of day 1 is up. You should go over there and read it.

For those who are really interested in the details of it, I've summarized/paraphrased the Harran defense team's (as represented by attorney Thomas O'Brien) questions below the jump:

To the LA Fire Department investigator who interviewed Sheri Sangji, Mr. Robert Hernandez:
  • Was Ms. Sangji aware that the chemical was pyrophoric? Did she know that it had spilled? Did Mr. Hernandez agree that it was an accident? 
To the burn unit physician, Dr. Peter Grossman:
  • Why so many photos (20 in all) of Ms. Sangji's injuries?
  • Questions on the extent of Ms. Sangji's burns and injuries
  • Why did Ms. Sangji's heart stop (during the 3rd surgery)?
  • How much of the burns came from tBuLi, as opposed to burning clothing? 
To the deputy medical examinaer, Vadims Poukens:
  • Did Dr. Poukens notice anything unusual about her heart? Could he tell that it stopped during a surgical proceeding?
  • Did Dr. Poukens examine Ms. Sangji's brain to indicate cause of death? 
First, I am not a lawyer. It is my understanding that it is not advantageous for the defense to say much during a preliminary hearing and I assume that they're going to continue to be somewhat cryptic as to a defense strategy. I am terribly curious to what Professor Harran's defense team is getting at with their questions. I get the sense that they're trying to separate her death from her injuries, but to what end, I am not sure.

(One presumes that, as an overall strategy, the best-case scenario for the Harran team is to show that the prosecution does not have enough evidence to move to trial. I suppose that this will have much more to do with Professor Harran and his (lack of) safety training for Ms. Sangji than anything else, but again, IANAL.) 

Readers, any ideas? 


  1. Some possible strategies from this questioning:

    If she knew she was working with a dangerous chemical, then she was assuming a certain level of risk. She could have asked for assistance, but she judged for herself that she knew what she was doing, and a simple accident happened during the process.

    (I would attack this by questioning whether she could show enough judgement about proper course of action with her limited lab skills compared to Harran's level of skill.)

    Also, if most of her burns were due to her sweater, which she presumably chose on her own to wear, then that may shift culpability.

    (I would attack this by asking Mr Harran if he knew that a typical sweater would react poorly to any of the dangerous chemicals one would encounter in a lab, let alone a pyrophoric compound. Does the lab have clothing guidelines? Why weren't they enforced? Or, why would it permit flammable attire?)

    The autopsy questioning seems like a stretch. They might be simply poking around for some opening. Provoking doubt about whether her death was due to the accidents burns alone vs. some sort of combination of the burns and her own physiology? I doubt that holds up.

  2. It sounds simple enough to me: It looks like they are building their case in two directions. They are trying to establish that the researcher was aware of the danger, but did not take proper precautions, shifting the blame to her. The second approach is to shift blame to the hospital for the death. It has already been noted that one of the doctors did not expect her to die from her injuries.
    The brain question might have to do with lithium, suggesting that the lithium might have affected the brain and that the doctor should have anticipated this.

    Really, though, I feel that this case is similar to the Italy quake case in significance. Science has some dangers to it, even if we act appropriately in every situation. Humans don't, though. If we must be protected from ourselves, can we really do science?

    1. I don't feel that Harran acted appropriately in his role as the head of a research laboratory.
      In the Italy quake case, researchers failed to predict an earthquake- a natural disaster- a prediction that reasonably competent scientists could still fail at despite diligent effort. In this case, diligent effort at training and monitoring new staff and enforcing correct laboratory safety practices would have prevented this man-made disaster.
      Yes, science has some inherent dangers that are not yet identified (like biological risks associated with new nano materials). Science also has dangers that are well characterized and circumventable (how to work with tBuLi- aren't there people who work with this stuff daily that never end up on fire?). We have every right to expect to be able to do science in a way that protects ourselves from the known and avoidable risks.
      Consent is meaningless if it isn't informed consent. How could a 22 or 23 year old be expected to understand the nature of risks in this lab in the same way as a postdoc or professor? I can't believe anyone would blame a new lab tech or new grad student for a lab incident of this magnitude.
      Harran is more like the Italian cruise ship captain who let the crew sink with the boat while he headed for the life boats.

    2. Her age is no excuse, 17-18 yr olds are supposedly capable of assessing the risks of signing up for war, which is a dangerous activity. And I expect that she had watched a few lab safety videos in the process of earning her bachelor's degree. PPE and the like are covered there.

      And hadn't Sheri already run the same reaction a couple of times on a smaller scale? My apologies if I my memory is incorrect.

    3. Yes, this was either her 2nd or 3rd iteration of this reaction.

    4. Is the risk working in a chemistry lab really similarly comparable with signing up for the Army or the Marines (the two branches where a 17-18 year old is most likely to see 'war')?

      (Actually, this is an interesting quantitative problem.)

    5. My argument is that a chem lab is not equivalent, it is much safer, on the whole, yet an adult isn't deemed capable of making a responsible choice. If an 18-22 yr old wants to join the army, then they're an adult, otherwise they are an 'adult'.

      This isn't meant to put blame on sheri. It was an accident caused by numerous small choices. It is a tragedy. There are many aspects of academic labs that could be made safer, but nothing short of closing up shop will guarantee there will not be another fatal accident someday.

    6. I have an appointment, but this is an interesting line of argument. I think the main difference is the degree to which the risk is emphasized; if you're in boot camp, that you will likely suffer death and/or injury is rubbed in your face until you are inured to it.

      Not necessarily so for risk in a chemical laboratory.

      I don't think we could guaranteed that there will not be another fatal accident; I think it is worth discussing whether the UC reforms stemming from the Sangji incident will push the risk down. I think the answer is yes (although at what cost?). What do you think?

  3. At first i was concerned that the only postdocs were in the next room and had limited English skills. And ultimately i do blame Harran for (allegedly) instituting and maintaining a culture of lab safety negligence. After looking at the articles from Jyllian Kemsley though, the person i have come to wonder about the most is the postdoc who was supposed to train her, Paul Hurley. Apparently all the weird techniques that we couldn't believe--plastic syringe, no clamp, no PPE--came directly from him. What happened to this amazing fellow? He got a job at Gilead and was long gone by the time Sheri was killed.

    I don't think it's too hard for any of us to imagine the postdoc just waiting to start his real job and get out of lab, saddled with an undergrad annoyance, who he brushes off and/or gives counterintuitive 'guidance' to (lots of things may work if you have the experience to pull them off, but won't if you don't). Who goes to industry and for the first time in his life (ie, outside an academic lab) has to think about safety.