ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Attorney General Gary King’s announcement that the death of prominent civil rights attorney Mary Han was “mischaracterized” as a suicide and the investigation into her death was botched – his conclusions coming nearly three years and six front-page news columns since her death – is not the most disturbing part of the news that broke late last week.
For that, take a look at the bottom of the AG’s press release, the part in which King asks that “anyone with information about the circumstances of Mary Han’s death, who has not previously come forward to the appropriate authorities,” contact his office immediately.
Think of the irony, the shame, of that.
Because in those crucial hours after Han was found dead Nov. 18, 2010, in the home and garage of her North Valley townhome some of those “appropriate authorities” were behaving inappropriately.
They were the ones who had a duty to ensure that Han’s death was investigated properly, with professionalism and respect.
They didn’t do that.
Which is why, nearly three years and six front-page news columns later, we still cannot say we know fully the circumstances behind Han’s death and we still cannot say that the Albuquerque Police Department and other city officials did right by her.
On Friday, King released his scathing findings, saying that Han’s death scene was “terribly mishandled,” misguided as it was by the top brass from APD and the city, and that her death was too hastily deemed a suicide before even a minimal investigation was begun.
Remember the first words uttered to a 911 dispatcher in the moments after she was found propped awkwardly in the front seat of her car parked in the garage?
“Looks like an accidental suicide.”
Those words were spoken by Paul Kennedy, Han’s longtime law partner, a former state Supreme Court justice and the former chief legal counsel for Gov. Susana Martinez’s transition team.
Kennedy had been the one to find Han, arriving at her home when she failed to show up for work that morning.
Kennedy had also been the one Han texted the night before about her decision to split from their law firm, according to a lawsuit filed by Han’s family.
And, according to that lawsuit – amended Friday just after King’s news hit the streets – Kennedy may have been one of the last people to see Han alive. Kennedy apparently told a paramedic that he had seen Han the night before he found her dead, the lawsuit says.
APD, however, did not appear to question Kennedy’s assessment of “accidental suicide,” whatever that is. Less than five minutes after arriving at the home, Paul Feist, then a deputy chief and the commander of APD’s Scientific Evidence Division, declared Han’s death a suicide, the Han family lawsuit alleges. Thus, no major crime scene team was brought in to investigate, no detectives were called, no determination made as to how in the world it was possible that Han’s carbon monoxide saturation level, as later determined by an autopsy, was 84.8 percent – far too high to have come only from the exhaust of a car, especially one like Han’s BMW 330i, which has a carbon monoxide detector that would have turned off the vehicle before toxic levels were reached.
King isn’t naming names in his report, but he makes clear that the decisions made in the hours after Han’s death were in violation of proper police procedures and resulted in a failure to secure crucial evidence, a failure to conduct crucial scientific analysis, a failure to conduct sufficient witness interviews, a failure to preserve the scene and a failure to provide the state Office of the Medical Investigator with the information it needed to properly determine the manner of Han’s death.
“The cumulative effect of the errors by APD make it extremely difficult at this time to definitely determine the cause of Mary Han’s death,” King said.
But let’s not forget the failure to show some decency. As news of Han’s death crackled over police radios, nearly all of the highest-ranking members of APD and the city began showing up, walking though Han’s home, rifling through her purse, destroying the scene preservation and preventing an effective investigation from being conducted.
There in the home that day were Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry, then the city attorney; then-city Public Safety Director Darren White and his spokesman, T.J. Wilham; APD Deputy Chiefs Feist, Beth Paiz and Allen Banks, now the interim police chief; Valley Area Commander Rae Mason; police crime lab director Marc Adams; and four sergeants, including APD spokeswoman Sgt. Trish Hoffman.
You would have thought that with all that police firepower in the house somebody might have noticed that the two diamond rings – family heirlooms valued at $100,000 – that Han always wore were missing.
They have never been found.
Chief Ray Schultz, who retired last month, was out of town that day, but cellphone records indicate he communicated repeatedly with several officials in the Han home.
In other words, Schultz knew what was happening in the home of a woman who had for years been a thorn in the department’s side, winning millions of dollars in lawsuits against APD on behalf of her clients.
Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Levy, who has been representing the city against the Han family lawsuit, has said that APD’s investigation was complete and thorough and that personnel on the scene and elsewhere that day were respectful and professional.
Nearly all of those respectful, professional folks – including Schultz, Feist, Paiz and White – have either retired or resigned.
And so we are where we began, nearly three years and now seven front-page news columns later. The folks at OMI have yet to say whether they will change Han’s autopsy report from “suicide” to “undetermined.” No one at APD has been held accountable, as far as we can tell. And the Han family lawsuit was moved to federal court Friday.
If nothing else, King affirms the possibility that it was not a suicide.
And that bolsters what many of us have felt all along – that Mary Han, a strong, spirited and fearless woman, almost certainly would never, could never kill herself.
“I just want justice for my sister,” Liz Wallbro, Han’s sister, said Friday as the family gathered to celebrate the 90th birthday of their father. “She spent her whole life giving justice for others.”
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 ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.