ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Quiet has descended again upon the case involving the mysterious death of prominent civil rights attorney Mary Han, which is likely the way those who have never spoken up about their roles in the controversial investigation into her death three years ago prefer it.
It could get even quieter.
In the clerk’s minutes of a hearing held Jan. 2 on the civil lawsuit brought by Han’s family against the city and Albuquerque Police Department personnel, attorneys for both sides agreed to a settlement conference Jan. 24 in Las Cruces before U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Wormuth.
A settlement would effectively close down the best chance the public has to learn further details into how Han died, how her case was handled and who should be held accountable.
The potential of a settlement comes with a warning from the city’s attorneys that their clients are likely unwilling to offer much money but would be open to discussing “non-monetary relief,” the minutes state.
What might that be? An apology for how it mishandled the investigation into Han’s Nov. 18, 2010, death, as the Han family claims? A bouquet of roses to say sorry for the audacious and disrespectful way the family says high-ranking members of APD and City Hall traipsed through Han’s North Valley townhome? A gift certificate to a jewelry store to help pay a fraction of the cost of replacing Han’s two diamond rings – family heirlooms valued at $100,000 – her relatives say disappeared that day?
We can only speculate. Attorneys for both sides are mum on the matter.
Even more mum than usual.
The clerk’s minutes also indicate that Stephen French, one of the attorneys representing the city folk, told the judge he was having a dispute with Han family attorney Rosario Vega Lynn over her chatting with the media on the possible settlement of the case.
French is apparently referring to a comment Vega Lynn made to KOB-TV in a Dec. 20 news story in which she voiced concern over the lengthy litigious battle and how it may be time to settle so the focus returns to how Han lived, not how she died.
“Do a Google search on Mary Han, and the first thing that’s going to come up, unfortunately, is this litigation,” Vega Lynn said in the interview. “It’s not going to be her cases; it isn’t going to be the causes she brought forth when she was here and engaged in her work.”
The KOB story also included this response from City Attorney David Tourek, which Tourek’s office confirmed this week to the Journal: “The city of Albuquerque is always willing to try and resolve cases that have merit, reasonably. The Han case is a frivolous lawsuit. We do not settle frivolous lawsuits.”
The clerk’s minutes, however, make no mention of Tourek’s comment but only of how French was apparently vexed with Vega Lynn’s words.
The judge, however, was not. According to the clerk’s minutes, Wormuth said he didn’t think Vega Lynn’s comments were an issue but that French was free to submit a motion for sanctions against her.
French did not return my calls and emails. Neither did Vega Lynn.
It has always been thus in the Han case, this deafening silence.
When Han was found oddly crumpled in the driver’s seat of her BMW 330i parked in her garage, the numerous high-ranking officials with APD and City Hall who shuffled through her death scene were largely mum about what they were doing there and why so many of them had any business in the home of a woman who had sued the city, particularly the police force, for millions.
Nine months later came a statement from the city’s legal department saying that “public information personnel and police administrators were present to address questions from the local media.”
But few questions and fewer answers were given that day or any day since. That’s due in part to Han’s longtime law partner, Paul Kennedy, who minutes after finding Han’s body had declared to a 911 operator that her death was an “accidental suicide.”
But Han’s relatives pushed forward, saying they wanted the truth about what happened to Han, who at 53 was healthy and feisty and not someone they believe would kill herself with an extraordinarily high level of carbon monoxide.
Based on the relatives’ comments to the TV station, however, it appears they have reconsidered just how far they are willing to push. That, of course, is their prerogative. It is their civil lawsuit, and they owe the general public nothing more.
But a public airing, should this lawsuit continue onward to trial, appears to be the best way to give her a modicum of justice, a clearer understanding, perhaps, of what went so horribly wrong.
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.