News

Fired researcher who shot medical school dean is convicted of attempted murder

BMJ 2017; 357 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j2959 (Published 19 June 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j2959
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

A disgraced former researcher who shot the dean of Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York has been convicted of attempted murder, criminal use of a firearm, and first degree assault. He faces up to 25 years in prison.

Hengjun Chao, 50, claimed in court that he shot psychiatrist Dennis Charney, 66, in an attempt to draw publicity to corruption he had discovered at the medical school.

Chao shot Charney as the dean emerged from a delicatessen holding a coffee, early in the morning on his way to work.1 The shooting was captured on security video, as was Chao’s staking out the delicatessen for four days previously.

Seeing Charney emerge, Chao rushed into the middle of the street and shot him with a 20 gauge shotgun at a range of 15 feet. Charney, hit in the right chest and shoulder, was able to run back into the delicatessen, where another customer had been lightly wounded by buckshot passing through the window.

Chao waited outside in the street and called the police himself. When they arrived, he turned over the gun, telling them, “I just shot an asshole.”

Charney spent five days in hospital, followed by long physical therapy. Three months later he was given a diagnosis of a seizure disorder, which doctors believed was caused by the shooting. He still carries nine pellets in his body.

Charney told the court that he had not at first recognized the shooter, but later in hospital, wondering who might seek to kill him, he “thought of Dr Chao.”

The shooting was the first time the two had met in seven years. Chao, whose specialty was gene therapy for hemophilia, was fired from his job as assistant professor at the school in 2010, when he lost his last internal appeal against a 2007 finding of research misconduct.

He had joined in 2004 and was given his own laboratory to run in 2007, but soon after that a research assistant claimed that he was switching mice to make results fit his theories. Chao accused the whistleblower of acting to cover up her own fabrications, but an internal investigation upheld her claims.

After leaving, Chao filed a federal lawsuit against Mount Sinai, which was twice dismissed. He worked a few brief jobs in hospitals but was a “pariah” in his profession, prosecutors said.

On the internet he found blogs and journal articles that he believed cast Charney in a negative light. Chao’s defense lawyer Stewart Orden told the court, “The more he learned, the more he believed he had to do something.” Claiming that Chao meant only to shoot the coffee from Charney’s hand, he said it was an attempt to garner attention. “He planned on having press coverage of what he had to say.”

“I can prove that he’s a corrupt individual,” Orden said of Charney. “It goes to his credibility.” The lawyer then questioned Chao at length about unnamed journal articles that, Chao claimed, showed how Charney had hidden financial links to the maker of the antidepressant paroxetine and participated in a conspiracy to minimize the drug’s association with suicide in teenagers.

Lucia Lee, a spokeswoman for Mount Sinai, said that Orden’s “baseless claims” were “offensive and disgraceful.” Prosecutors complained that the defense’s “smear campaign” was victimizing Charney a second time.

Jurors took just over one hour to find Chao guilty on all counts.

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