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UCLA professor to stand trial in fire that killed lab assistant

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles judge on Friday ordered a UCLA chemistry professor to stand trial on charges stemming from a 2008 fire in his university lab that fatally burned a 23-year-old research assistant, rejecting a defense request to dismiss the case.

Patrick Harran faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if he is convicted of all three counts of violating occupational health and safety standards in his organic chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The 43-year-old professor, who is free on his own recognizance, was ordered back to court on May 9 for an arraignment. A trial date will likely also be set at the hearing, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said.

The charges against Harran stem from a December 29, 2008, fire at his lab that left staff research associate Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, a native of Pakistan, with burns over nearly half of her body. She died of her injuries 18 days later after being removed from life support.

Prosecutors say the fire broke out when Sangji, a recent college graduate who had only been working in the lab for some 2 1/2 months, was performing an experiment with tert-Butyllithium, a pyrophoric chemical, meaning that it spontaneously ignites when exposed to air.

Sangji had been attempting to transfer a tiny quantity of the tert-Butyllithium when the syringe she was using came apart, spilling the chemical and immediately catching her polyester sweater on fire. She was unsupervised and not wearing a flame-retardant lab coat at the time.

Prosecutors accuse Harran, an award-winning chemist, of failing to properly train the young research associate in handling such dangerous substances and say he did not require the use of protective equipment, including lab coats.

In a 2009 statement to the Los Angeles Times, Harran called Sangji an "experienced chemist" who had previous experience handling pyrophoric substances.

"However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials," Harran said in the statement.

Following a preliminary hearing in the case over several days last fall, lawyers for Harran asked that the charges be dismissed or reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, arguing in part that Sangji's death was a tragic accident and not a crime.

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa Lench, during a hearing in the case on Friday, disagreed, saying there was sufficient evidence to put Harran on trial.

The University of California regents were charged along with Harran in 2011, but that case was later dismissed after officials there agreed to adopt a list of safety measures and establish a $500,000 scholarship in the Sangji's name.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Steve Gorman and Andre Grenon)

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