In a rare move, a state District Court judge has ordered the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator to change its conclusion about the manner of death of a prominent Albuquerque attorney from “suicide” to “undetermined.”
First Judicial District Judge David Thomson in Santa Fe ruled, in part, that the Albuquerque Police Department’s investigation into the death of attorney Mary Han was so flawed that OMI couldn’t reach a conclusion of suicide and should make changes to her death certificate. The judge said OMI’s conclusion was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Alex Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, which OMI is a part of, said the agency disagreed with the judge’s ruling and is considering an appeal.
Thomson’s ruling was in response to a non-jury trial held back in January 2017.
Elizabeth Wallbro, Han’s sister, had brought a petition for a writ of mandamus seeking to have the manner of death changed.
Wallbro’s attorneys said that more than 50 police officers and upper-level city and Albuquerque police officials turned the death scene into a “surreal circus,” in which high-ranking officials trooped through Han’s home, drank water in the kitchen, used her bathroom and handled items in her home instead of preserving evidence.
Han on many occasions during her career had filed lawsuits against the police department.
“Due to the contamination of the scene and the loss of critical evidence, even under the most deferential standard, there is no basis for (OMI’s) determination of the manner of death,” Thomson wrote in his 96-page opinion filed Wednesday. “Simply put, the evidence needed to make this determination was spoiled by the acts of the investigating agency.”
But Sanchez said in a prepared statement: “We have the highest respect for the court but disagree with the judge’s ruling in this case. Our experts conducted a complete and thorough investigation into Ms. Han’s death and we stand by the autopsy determination that Ms. Han died as a result of a suicide.”
Paul Kennedy, Han’s former law partner, found Han dead in a car parked in the garage of her North Valley Albuquerque home in November 2010.
OMI’s report of death concluded Han died by inhaling carbon monoxide in a closed garage. The cause was ruled as a suicide.
In court filings, Han’s sister said she had spoken with Mary Han the night before her body was found and she didn’t seem out of character.
Han also had plans to visit her only child the week after her death, and no note indicating suicide was found.
Wallbro’s petition alleged that the police failed to test carbon monoxide levels inside Han’s home, her fingernails for DNA evidence and some of the items found at the scene of her death, such as a glass of liquid thought to be vodka. It also questioned why no attempt was made to explain why she was found inside a car that wasn’t running and no neighbors were interviewed.
Those were just some of the problems with Albuquerque police’s investigation into her death, according to court documents.
There were also questions about the thoroughness of OMI’s autopsy, said Diane Garrity, one of Wallbro’s attorneys.
Thomson’s ruling said while some responding Albuquerque police officers tried to follow proper protocols, the scene was “overrun for some unknown reason by other responding individuals both civilian and supervisors at APD.”
“The degree and extent of the collusion and obscuring of truth by the (OMI) and the (APD) will never be known, but at least the medical investigator’s office has been held accountable for their decisions and must – from this point forward – justify the bases for their decisions,” Rosario Vega Lynn and Garrity, Wallbro’s attorneys, said in a prepared statement.
Garrity said there have been few cases in which judges have ordered OMI to make changes to a death certificate. She said the case is important because it shows families they have a way to challenge OMI if they disagree with the office’s findings.
Garrity said the experts who testified at trial believe that the manner of Han’s death will never be conclusive.
“The experts believe that the crime scene was so contaminated and the contamination was so acute that we’ll probably never be able to say conclusively what happened,” she said.