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Four days after Christmas 2008, UCLA research associate Sheri Sangji caught fire. She was performing an experiment in a university laboratory and accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe filled with a chemical that combusts upon contact with air. The chemical spilled on her hands and torso, burning almost half her body. She died 18 days later. She was 23.

Sangji’s supervisor, chemistry professor Patrick Harran, faces felony charges for the accident, as does the University of California’s Board of Regents. It’s the first time a professor in the United States has been criminally prosecuted in connection with the workplace death of an employee. Harran and university lawyers are to appear in a Los Angeles courtroom on Friday. A long-delayed arraignment may take place — or, a plea agreement may be announced.

Harran and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block have called Sangji’s death a tragic accident, not a crime. Sangji’s sister, Naveen, feels differently. “If this were a regular person out on the street who got drunk and killed someone,” she says of Harran, an award-winning researcher, “he would be going to jail.”

On Friday the Center for Public Integrity will publish an in-depth story, produced jointly with the Center for Investigative Reporting, on the Sangji case. The story is part of the Center’s Hard Labor project.

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Jim Morris

A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...