ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Seven years ago this month, the shocking news ricocheted across the city. Mary Han, a legal powerhouse known for her sharp litigation skills, stiletto heels and salty language, was dead.
At age 53, she had been at the top of her game, taking on formidable foes like the Albuquerque Police Department and preparing to enter a new phase in her career by breaking up her longtime partnership with fellow attorney Paul Kennedy. She was excited to see her daughter for Thanksgiving. She was, friends say, happy.
And, then, she was dead, her body found Nov. 18, 2010, awkwardly positioned in the front seat of her BMW in her garage, her blood highly saturated with a toxic level of carbon monoxide.
Her death was declared a suicide.
To many, that remains unbelievable.
But a decision expected in January out of the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe could change that ruling.
Or not. For most of these past seven years, Han’s family members and their attorneys have sought answers about how she died and how the investigation into her death went so wrong. They have sought an apology for the way her death was treated by dozens of top-ranking officials from APD and City Hall who they say inexplicably descended on Han’s North Valley townhome that afternoon, potentially contaminating evidence, failing to follow protocols and turning what should have been a somber scene into a circus.
Claims were filed in courts from the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. A scathing report by the office of then-Attorney General Gary King condemned the APD investigation as “terribly mishandled” and urged the state Office of the Medical Investigator to reconsider its determination of Han’s death as a suicide.
One by one, nearly all of those claims have come to fruitless ends.
But one of the last best hopes is a petition filed in 2015 seeking an order – called a writ of mandamus – that would compel the OMI to change the manner of Han’s death from suicide to undetermined.
During a bench trial last January on that petition, state District Judge David Thomson of Santa Fe heard sometimes shocking testimony about the mishandling of the case as described by several key witnesses who before then had not spoken publicly.
In April, attorneys for both sides filed additional briefs in the case.
But last week Thomson, through a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said he expects to issue a ruling in January – a year since the trial was held.
That, an attorney for the Han family said, is hopeful news, not just for the family but for everybody who still believes that the investigation was too botched to conclusively determine the manner in which she died.
“We are humbled that people still want to know what really happened to Ms. Han and grateful to Judge Thomson for making the time to allow the court process to work,” said attorney Rosario Vega Lynn, who presented the case last January with attorney Diane Garrity.
Lynn and Garrity argue that, besides allowing the scene to become contaminated, the OMI failed to conduct further testing of vital organs to explain how Han’s carbon monoxide intoxication level reach an extremely high saturation level of 84.8 percent. They argue that investigators should have tested a clear liquid in a cup found in Han’s car, examined her cellphone and laptop found in the car, interviewed witnesses, examined the mechanisms in the car, its windows, the garage windows and the townhome’s heating system.
But attorneys for OMI argue that the Han family is “seeking to control the discretion of OMI and substitute its own opinion for that of OMI’s highly qualified and experienced forensic pathologists.”
Dr. Ross Zumwalt, then the chief medical officer at OMI, testified in January that he had reviewed Han’s case three times and remained 95 percent certain that she had died by suicide. No other injury or disease was found to explain Han’s incapacitation, he said. Unless he was shown proof that she was “held there at gunpoint or was tied up and put in that position” in the car, there would be little to change his opinion, he said.
Now it’s the opinion of the judge that matters.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.