Friday, April 26, 2013

Patrick Harran preliminary hearing to be decided today

Drs. Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice of Chemical and Engineering News will be in court today for Los Angeles Superior Judge Lisa Lench's decision in the preliminary hearing on the charges against UCLA professor Patrick Harran. 

Professor Harran has been charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney with 3 felony counts of violating California labor law in connection with the death of his research assistant Ms. Sheri Sangji in December 29, 2008 due to burns from a failed syringe transfer of over 160 milliliters of 1.67 M t-BuLi in pentane. 

Over at The Safety Zone, Dr. Kemsley has posted an analysis of the three new legal documents available that summarize the defense and prosecution's positions after the preliminary hearing:
It is quite good, so you should definitely read it. She notes that the prosecution notes that the defense tends to quote out of context; I agree. I asked prosecution witness Dr. Neal Langerman his opinion of the defense's characterization of the statement; he demurred from commenting. 

After reading all the documents, I think there are a lot of differences in opinion on facts of the case, including Ms. Sangji's experience level. (In its response, the defense moves backward a little and now says that "Ms. Sangji was more experienced and better trained than most chemists at her level." I am glad that they've finally admitted that they're grading on a curve.) It will be interesting to see how Judge Lench rules on the "willful" charges -- to a great extent, the legal arguments rest on whether or not Professor Harran could have been "willful" if he did not know he was violating the law at the time. Believe it or not, the hackneyed phrase "Ignorance of the law..." makes it into the prosecution brief. 

I have further thoughts on the case, but I suspect that any thoughts that I might have will be overtaken by events. I will be monitoring tweets coming out of the courtroom; you can see my Twitter feed. You can also track the #SheriSangji hashtag . 

4 comments:

  1. Though I, of course, feel the most sorrow for Ms. Sanjii and her family, I really do feel sorry for Dr. Harran. I used to be a PI and run a molecular biology lab. Now I "just" teach, not because I got into such trouble but because I didn't get enough grants. But like so many other lab people, I look at this and think of the classic line "There but for the grace of God go I." I would be happy if he were acquitted even though I suspect he is guilty of at least some negligence. Though I never had any material quite like the ones used in Harran's lab, what if someone would have lit a Bunsen burner right next to an open container or ether,,,or something similar. Did I even instruct my students, techs or post-docs not to do that. Of course not. At that level it should be common sense. While running my lab I felt that I was very safety conscious. I actually probably did give specific instructions to keep fire far away from flammables. But I didn't document what I said. Well those days are gone. Document everything. Give specific courses on every conceivable safety hazard and also on 99.999% of the unconceivable hazards. But lack of such training should not be considered Harran's fault. He seems to be held to standards which only now are being put in place. Of course, I do not know how his lab actually functioned. Let the jury figure that out. I have mixed feelings. I still feel sorry for him. Excuse me for rambling.

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    1. You did not run a biology lab and I'm pretty sure you were a physicist of some sort. And technically you are now dead, but thanks for commenting from beyond the grave. Anyways, thanks a lot for your post Erwin. I think that view is shared by quite a few of the PIs with regards to their own style in running a lab, but I haven't really seen it spelled out by anyone before in a personal manner. I'm not a PI, but I think along a similar vein on this. I think... I'm also not too sure.

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  2. I don't think i've heard a sympathetic defense of Harran yet that couldn't be applied to a drunk driving situation just as well. "Well, i had a few beers that one time, and i didn't get arrested, so should we make this poor fellow pay just because he ran over a young woman who died of her injuries after an agonizing week in ICU?"

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    1. But it's not the same thing, is it? That's the problem with analogies. They reduce complicated issues to simplicity or change them to something that is completely different but understandable. That fictitious guy ran over a woman. This is completely different from Harran being negligent in safety training.

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