Famed pathologist questions Han ruling - Albuquerque Journal

Famed pathologist questions Han ruling

Last month, famed forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz, who has made a laudable living off the dead for more than 62 years, offered his thoughts on the investigation into the death of prominent civil rights attorney Mary Han in Albuquerque nearly five years ago.

Spitz co-wrote “Medicolegal Investigation of Death,” the bible of forensic pathology, now in its 20th printing. His expertise has been sought in dozens of high-profile cases from the assassination of President Kennedy to the murder trials of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony. And now, it had been sought by the Han family.

His opinion was stunning.

HAN: Coroner labeled her death a suicide
HAN: Coroner labeled her death a suicide

“It is evident that the investigation was cursory, superficial and incomplete, both by the medical investigator and the police,” Spitz wrote in a letter dated July 24 to Rosario Vega Lynn, the Han family’s attorney. “Under the circumstances, I firmly believe that this case should be reopened, re-examined and re-evaluated.”

Which is what many – including two other medical experts, former Attorney General Gary King and yours truly – have been saying almost since that gut-kicking afternoon when Han was found dead Nov. 18, 2010, in her car parked in the garage at her North Valley townhouse.

The state Office of the Medical Investigator deemed her death a suicide by carbon monoxide intoxication, but few who had known the fearless, feisty, 53-year-old Han believed she had taken her own life. There were just too many questions unanswered, too much left undone by the agencies that should have sought those answers.

A lawsuit filed by the Han family in November 2012 against the city of Albuquerque and various personnel contends that the Albuquerque Police Department – an agency Han had sued for millions of dollars – failed to conduct a thorough and appropriate investigation into her death and allowed dozens of high-ranking police and city officials to tromp around her home, destroying evidence and leading the OMI astray.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza dismissed the lawsuit in August 2014, ruling that there is “no fundamental right under the Constitution to know the cause of a family member’s death.” Garza also ruled that a dead person’s civil rights cannot be violated, that the family had not shown Han’s civil rights were violated before she died, nor had the civil rights of the family members been violated. And the family, Garza said, had not identified the wrongful act that caused Han’s death.

The case remains under appeal, split into two portions now before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and state District Court in Albuquerque.

Perhaps the worst indignity argued at the heart of these legal actions is the label of suicide when even the OMI has acknowledged that the investigation into Han’s death was incomplete at best.

“The report certainly identified shortcomings in the original scene investigation and difficulties getting full information about some of the circumstances surrounding the death,” then-chief medical investigator Dr. Ross Zumwalt wrote in a letter dated Dec. 13, 2013, to the Attorney General’s Office.

Zumwalt’s letter came four months after the AG had released its own scathing report on the Han investigation, calling it “terribly mishandled” and contending that suicide was a mischaracterization.

But Zumwalt refused to change Han’s manner of death from suicide to “undetermined,” saying that suicide was still proper “within reasonable medical probability.”

Zumwalt and his successor, Dr. Kurt Nolte, have repeatedly rebuffed efforts to change the manner of death. A formal appeal from the Han family in August 2011 went unanswered. The OMI was also unmoved by the opinions, which were requested by the Han family, of Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry in 2012; Dr. David Williams, a board-certified emergency room physician with the Heart Hospital of New Mexico, in 2015; and Spitz this July, who in his letter to the Han family attorney called the suicide determination a “rush to judgment.”

So on Monday the Han family filed a petition asking the court to compel the OMI to conduct a “fair, accurate, professional and impartial investigation into Ms. Han’s true cause and manner of death and to provide an accurate death certification.”

The petition, filed in the 1st Judicial Court in Santa Fe because the OMI is a state agency, makes a number of allegations against the OMI, including that its field personnel did not communicate with first responders, who had identified Han’s home as a possible crime scene; that it failed to investigate the contents of Han’s laptop found in her car; failed to interview Han’s longtime law partner, Paul Kennedy, who found Han dead; failed to test the clear liquid found in a glass in the car or test the air for carbon monoxide; failed to collect medication found in the home or collect evidence and DNA that might have been found under her fingernails or on her body; and failed to contact an expert on whether Han’s car had a carbon monoxide sensor.

Nolte, named chief medical investigator in January, did not respond to a request to discuss the Han case, but John Arnold, a spokesman with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, under which the OMI operates, offered this: “OMI strives to conduct a fair and accurate investigation for every case it reviews. This case is no exception. We have not been served with the petition, so cannot comment on it specifically.”

The noble cause of a forensic pathologist is to seek the truth, says the foreword to Spitz’s seminal “Medicolegal Investigation of Death.” That requires the pathologist to “abandon rhetoric, ancient dogma and fictive contentions in favor of finding and presenting fact.”

The facts in Han’s death appear to be irretrievably lost, the truth forever out of reach. Surely it’s time the OMI found the guts to say so and change its report.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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