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UCLA professor ordered to perform community service in fatal lab fire

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A UCLA professor charged in a lab fire that fatally burned a Pakistani research assistant was fined $10,000 and ordered to perform community service on Friday after accepting responsibility for laboratory conditions that led to the blaze, prosecutors said.

Chemistry professor Patrick Harran, 44, acknowledged as part of a so-called deferred prosecution agreement that he was responsible for safety in the lab and was the direct supervisor of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, who was killed in the 2008 fire.

Sangji, a 23-year-old Pakistani citizen who was not wearing a protective lab coat, suffered burns over nearly half her body and died of her injuries 18 days later after being removed from life support.

As part of the deal, four criminal counts against Harran will be dismissed in five years if he pays the fine, completes 800 hours of community service at UCLA's hospital and teaches a summer chemistry course to inner-city high school graduates, according to a Los Angeles County District Attorney's spokesman.

During the court hearing, the victim's sister, Naveen Sangji described what she called the "horror" of her sibling's last days in a Los Angeles area burn center and the impact of her death on the family.

She told the court Harran pressured her sister to perform "large scale" experiments in a bid to win a Nobel prize and showed insensitivity to the family following the accident.

"Your honor, our family is haunted by our interactions with this unfeeling, unrepentant defendant," she said, according to a transcript of her remarks provided by prosecutors.

Prosecutors say the fire broke out when Sangji, a recent college graduate who had been working in Harran's lab for about 2-1/2 months, was working with tert-Butyllithium, a chemical that spontaneously ignites when exposed to air.

Sangji, who was unsupervised at the time, had been attempting to transfer a tiny quantity of the chemical when the syringe she was using came apart, spilling the substance and catching her polyester sweater on fire.

Prosecutors accused Harran, an award-winning chemist, of failing to properly train Sangji in handling such dangerous substances and said he did not require the use of protective equipment.

He was charged with violating state labor codes and could have faced a sentence of more than four years in prison if convicted at trial.

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

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Will Dunham)

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