ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When you die, you hope you will leave this world as you lived in it – with dignity and grace.
Mary Han lived like that. The prominent civil rights attorney fought for the downtrodden, the rape victim, the abused, the misused so they could live with dignity and grace as well.
She was only 53 when she died Nov. 18, 2010, and there were those who tried to make her death appear anything but dignified or graceful – one Albuquerque police officer infamously joking in a Facebook post that there was a special place in hell for her.
Paul Kennedy, her longtime law partner, found her seated awkwardly in her white 2006 BMW 330i parked in the garage of her North Valley town home and immediately perceived that she had died of an “accidental suicide.” The state Office of the Medical Investigator essentially concurred, calling her death a suicide by carbon monoxide intoxication.
Family and friends and others who took the time to consider the evidence vehemently disagreed, accusing the Albuquerque Police Department (her frequent courtroom nemesis), OMI and Kennedy of jumping to outlandish conclusions, botching the investigation and turning her demise into a sideshow.
It was, family and friends said, no suicide.
And the sideshow was a nasty way to treat a tragic situation.
Now comes an audiotape – provided to the Journal by the attorney for the Han family – of the OMI pathologist who deemed Han’s death a suicide, and it appears to add further credence to the contention of Han supporters that her death was not treated with dignity and grace but contempt, ridicule, insensitivity, ineptness and a lack of professionalism.
The audiotape, recorded June 19, is of a telephone conversation between an investigator for the Han family and Dr. R. Ross Reichard, who left OMI last year for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Reichard, in the audiotape, casually tells the investigator that Han’s primary care physician said there was “no way she would kill herself because she was too (expletive) mean.”
Despite that, Reichard makes an odd case for suicide by telling the investigator that Han had a lot of “personal issues,” including being dumped in a relationship and having sexual relationships with female police officers.
“She was having, like, lesbian relationships with APD officers and stuff,” he says on the tape. “So all these, like, lesbian APD officers showed up at the scene and all this kind of stuff. So, there probably was some things that shouldn’t have happened from APD’s standpoint, you know, as far as like professionalism, you know what I mean? Like it was a little bit of a spectacle perhaps.”
In another part of the conversation, he cryptically adds: “They tried a lot to switch this case around, you know.”
Han’s family, through its attorney, calls most of Reichard’s comments salacious fantasy and says the only credible crumb of his statement is that APD had indeed turned her death into a spectacle.
Shortly after Kennedy had reported Han dead, a large number of the city’s top brass swarmed her home, forcing an APD investigator to tape off the scene from his own superiors, according to the police report.
There that day were then-city Public Safety Director Darren White and his spokesman; then-city attorney Rob Perry; three APD deputy chiefs; one APD commander; four sergeants; and the APD crime lab director.
City officials said such an abundance of honchos was necessary because of Han’s high profile, the need to deal with media and protect the confidentiality of any legal documents in the home.
Han’s friends and family say the big guns were there to gawk and gloat over the death of a woman who had cost the city millions of dollars in lawsuits.
What is more troubling than Reichard’s comments to the investigator are his notes and conclusions in the autopsy report he signed off on.
He had, for instance, apparently not questioned how the carbon monoxide saturation found in Han’s body could have reached 84.8 percent – far higher than typically found in car carbon monoxide victims and higher than medical journals have recorded.
He had apparently not considered whether there could have been another source of carbon monoxide besides the car, that there had been no air tests performed in her home, that her car was equipped with a safety mechanism that shut off the engine before it emitted lethal amounts of carbon monoxide.
He had apparently not considered information noted in the report by an OMI investigator that the Ambien in Han’s system had, according to friends, in the past caused her to do odd things in a sleep state, such as start her car.
“They advise that the decedent is not suicidal and in fact was happy,” the investigator wrote.
Reichard does not appear to have considered that hours before her death Han had spoken happily to her sister, excited about a pending holiday trip to visit her daughter; that she had packed a bag in preparation for her early morning trip to the gym and confirmed those plans with a gym partner; that she had left no suicide note, no reason to suspect suicide.
Nowhere does Reichard mention these points in his summary and conclusion in Han’s autopsy report.
“Dr. Reichard focused only on what killed her and not why she died,” said Rosario Vega Lynn, attorney for the Han family. “He rapidly concluded that her death was a suicide, in the complete absence of objective evidence of suicide. His focus as a pathologist should have been cause and manner of death.”
Reichard, who has never returned any of the numerous calls and emails I have made or sent to him since August, again did not return my call to his office at the Mayo Clinic.
Meanwhile, Han’s family continues to contemplate whether to pursue a lawsuit against APD and OMI for the way Han’s death was handled.
They and those who loved Han continue to demand that Reichard and OMI review its investigation and reverse its ruling of suicide.
Only then will Han rest in dignity and grace.
UpFront is a daily 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.