Oct 16, 1:16 PM EDT

UCLA legal fees neared $4.5M in fatal lab fire

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LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The University of California, Los Angeles paid nearly $4.5 million in legal fees to fight criminal charges against a chemistry professor in a case involving a fatal laboratory fire, records reveal.

Nearly five dozen defense attorneys, paralegals and others billed for work on Patrick Harran's case, according to documents cited by the Los Angeles Times on Thursday ( http://lat.ms/1wcpF9d ). One attorney charged $792,000 in fees, and at least four other lawyers billed more than $500,000 each - all for pretrial work.

UCLA said in a statement Wednesday that the expense from its public funds was justified.

"We defended ourselves and our faculty member as was our right and obligation, using funds in a systemwide self-insurance program," it said.

Harran had faced up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted in the 2008 lab fire that killed research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.

Sangji, 23, was transferring a chemical when it spilled, igniting on contact with the air. She wasn't wearing a protective coat, and her sweater melted into her skin. She died 18 days later.

Harran settled with prosecutors in June by agreeing to teach high school summer classes in chemistry, perform 800 hours of community service and pay a $10,000 fine.

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com

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