ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This anniversary was supposed to be different.
Eight years ago Sunday, the legal community was stunned by the news that one of its brightest, boldest, brashest stars was dead.
Mary Han was a tiny woman even in her trademark heels, but she had a big career as a civil rights attorney and, those who knew her well would tell you, a big heart.
That she would have taken her own life with a hefty dose of carbon monoxide in her BMW in the garage of her North Valley townhome Nov. 18, 2010, made little sense to those who knew her.
Whether Han, 53, killed herself – or whether someone else had – will likely never be known because of how her death was treated by the Albuquerque Police Department, some members who despised Han, and the state Office of the Medical Investigator.
You’ve heard the allegations: Evidence was potentially contaminated or never collected, protocols were not followed, red flags were missed, upward of 60 officials trampled through her home like it was a cocktail party and, worst of all, assumptions were made far too quickly with far too little proof that she had committed suicide.
For most of these past eight years, Han’s family has sought answers and accountability, perhaps even an apology.
Then in August, state District Judge David Thomson in Santa Fe granted the family’s Hail Mary request and ordered OMI to change the manner of Han’s death from suicide to undetermined.
“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 in a 96-page ruling. “Simply put, the evidence needed to make this determination was spoiled by the acts of the investigating agency.”
Thomson’s ruling was as close as Han’s relatives were ever likely to get to having the answers, accountability and apology they wanted. It gave them a reason to exhale. But that exhalation did not last long.
A month later, attorneys for OMI filed their intent to appeal. In a docketing statement to the Court of Appeals filed in late October, attorney Paul Melendres argued that Thomson’s ruling was a “myopic desire to make sense of this tragedy and provide comfort” and that it could have serious negative legal implications for OMI.
The statement also opined that Han’s sister filed her lawsuits to “lay blame elsewhere” for her sister’s death.
Meanwhile, legal costs to defend the OMI in this matter continue to rise. Records from September 2015 to September 2018 obtained under the Inspection of Public Records Act found that Melendres and his law firm thus far have billed OMI – and in part you, the taxpayer – $203,123.45. That doesn’t include the $39,698.67 in costs and disbursements Thomson ordered OMI to pay Han’s attorneys Rosario Vega Lynn and Diane Garrity.
Alex Sanchez, spokeswoman for the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, which OMI is a part of, reiterated the statement given after Thomson’s ruling: “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.”
And so it goes.
Time and key characters have moved on. OMI, APD and the city are all under new administrations. Even the Attorney General’s Office, whose review of the case found that Han’s death was mischaracterized as a suicide and that her death had been “terribly mishandled,” is under different leadership.
One wonders if those in power now would have dealt with Han’s death differently then – and whether they could, whether they should, rectify the mistakes of their predecessors now.
“Judge Thomson gave them 96 pages of why they should,” Vega Lynn said. “That’s too many for even APD and Mayor Tim Keller to ignore.”
A week ago, a woman was found dead in her home on Nambe NE from what was described as “trauma to her head.” The death was treated as an apparent suicide.
Even so, APD officers secured the scene and began an investigation, just as they are supposed to.
The next day, OMI contacted APD about some “additional information” – some red flags, if you will – and detectives initiated a violent crimes callout, just as they are supposed to.
Mary Han deserved no less than what was supposed to be done.
And now because of the appeal, the one step to make amends for what was not supposed to happen is anything but certain, the eighth anniversary of her death anything but a time to exhale.
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.