ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was just the kind of case Mary Han might have loved.
The odds were not favorable, the opponents as formidable as they come, the allegations heinous as heck.
Han, a legal powerhouse known for championing the underdog and dogging the powerful, wouldn’t have let any of that dissuade her, fearless as she was, good as she was.
Except this case was about her.
Make that several cases about her, filed over the past seven years in courts from the state 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, each seeking answers for the way Han’s death in 2010 was hastily dismissed as a suicide and for the way her family says 50 to 60 officials from the city and Police Department descended afterward on her North Valley townhome, potentially contaminating evidence, failing to follow protocol and turning what should have been a somber scene into what her elder sister described as a zoo.
One by one, those claims have come up empty. Sometimes there is no legal recourse in life and death.
The last chance at a modicum of justice rested with state District Judge David Thomson in Santa Fe and whether he would grant the family’s uncommon request, filed three years ago this month, to compel the state Office of the Medical Investigator to reopen, re-examine, re-evaluate or outright change the manner of Han’s mysterious death from suicide to undetermined, given that the investigation into her death was not handled in a “fair, accurate, professional or impartial” way, as the family has argued.
It was worth the wait.
In a thorough, thoughtful 96-page ruling released Wednesday, Thomson ordered that the OMI change the manner of death to undetermined, saying that the agency’s conclusion of suicide had been “arbitrary and capricious and not founded in fact.”
“Due to the contamination of the scene and the loss of critical evidence, even under the most deferential standard, there is no basis for the Office of the Medical Investigator’s determination of the manner of death,” Thomson wrote. “Simply put, the evidence needed to make this determination was spoiled by the acts of the investigating agency.”
I’ve written about Han’s death more than a dozen times over the years, chronicling this long, frustrating and painful journey for the family and its lawyers as they have sought the truth as to how Han, 53, ended up awkwardly positioned in the front seat of her BMW in the garage of her North Valley townhome Nov. 18, 2010.
Han’s blood was so highly saturated with a toxic level of carbon monoxide that it should have been a red flag to investigators – one of many red flags the family says investigators with the Albuquerque Police Department and the OMI missed, ignored or destroyed.
It was a journey few attorneys were willing to take on for the family and one that was criticized by people in high places who had known Han and her longtime law partner, Paul Kennedy, a powerful man in both legal and political circles with whom Han had just severed ties.
Albuquerque attorney Rosario Vega Lynn – herself a scrappy lawyer in the Han mold – said that after she agreed to represent the family in 2011 she received calls from politicians, judges and lawyers urging her to drop the matter.
“This was an unpopular lawsuit with members of the legal community,” she said.
But Lynn – and, later, fellow scrappy Santa Fe attorney Diane Garrity – continued to push. Because of them, the unusual case before Thomson, held in January 2017, was already considered a victory in that it forever enshrined on the record the way the case had been mishandled – and by whom.
“When OMI received the notice as accidental suicide, it was taken as gospel,” Han’s older sister Elizabeth Wallbro testified. “Nobody ever challenged that statement and it stuck. Very conveniently was it labeled due to all the cases that my sister Mary was involved in that would cause serious embarrassment to the legal and political community.”
Thomson’s ruling confirms that this gospel was based not on investigation but innuendo, that evidence, whether negligently or willfully, was not collected, not preserved, lost forever.
In a statement Wednesday, an OMI spokeswoman said the agency is considering an appeal – which, it should be noted, will come at taxpayers’ expense. That shouldn’t happen. It’s time to let Han rest in peace, and it’s long past time for those who failed her to apologize.
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.