Charges dismissed in UCSF poisoning

March 30, 2009 1:09:39 PM PDT
San Francisco prosecutors Monday dismissed all charges against a former University of California at San Francisco researcher accused of trying to poison a female coworker in October.

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UCSF police arrested Ben Chun Liu, now 39, a Chinese post-doctoral student who worked in the school's urology department, in November after his colleague, a 44-year-old lab technician, found a suspicious blue substance in the bottom of her cup of drinking water on Oct. 23, and called police.

Prosecutors today dismissed charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and poisoning, citing new information, including some provided by Liu's attorney Bill Fazio.

The attempted murder charge alone could have carried a maximum of life in prison.

"Further investigation revealed that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the charges," District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Erica Derryck said.

Police claimed that at the time of his arrest, Liu admitted to the poisoning, but Fazio vigorously disputed that.

"He never intended to poison anybody," Fazio said after this morning's hearing.

Fazio said he wasn't sure how a small quantity of ethidium bromide -- a lab chemical used in identifying DNA, Fazio said -- got in the cup, but Liu later apologized to the woman and said it wasn't meant for her.

"She saw the blue stuff in her cup...and she got suspicious, so she called police," he said. He said the woman refused to talk with his own investigators.

"It was just a major misunderstanding by her as to what happened," Fazio said.

Furthermore, Fazio said, "The substance wasn't a poison." He said someone would have to ingest massive amounts of ethidium bromide to cause physical damage.

Police said the woman drank some of the water and was examined at hospital, but was released in good health.

Fazio said today there was no evidence she had consumed anything in the cup at all.

UCSF police said at the time of Liu's arrest that a motive for the alleged poisoning was unknown, and that Liu reportedly would only tell police that he had been "stressed out" at the time.

According to Fazio, there was no evidence of professional jealousy or any romantic association between the two.

Fazio today claimed that "some zealousness and excitement because of the nature of the case" on the part of UCSF police, as well as "some lack of experience by some of the officers there" allowed inaccurate information to be forwarded to prosecutors.

Liu was placed on administrative leave from the university following the incident, and his multi-year contract with the school was allowed to expire this year, Fazio said.

Fazio said Liu hopes to restore his reputation and continue his research at another U.S. laboratory.

"He's relieved now, but it was a pretty terrible strain on him and his family," Fazio said.

A spokesman for the university was not immediately available for comment today.

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