ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was one of those deaths you remember because they came so unexpectedly, like a crack of thunder, like a fall off a cliff. The shock takes hours to sink in.
Six years ago last Friday, I heard the vague details crackle over the police scanner in the newsroom. And then my phone blew up.
Mary Han, the indomitable civil rights attorney of small stature and salty language, the woman who had struck fear in those she faced on the other side of the courtroom – which sometimes included high-ranking officials and members of the Albuquerque Police Department – the woman who only close friends and fortunate journalists knew was generous to a fault, was dead. It was Nov. 18, 2010. She was 53.
She was found in her car in her garage at her North Valley townhome. Suicide, they said. Carbon monoxide, they said.
Bull pucky, we said.
Dozens of APD top brass and city officials descended on the scene, traipsing in and out as if it were some macabre party. Despite their presence there, reports in the case show that little was done to prove or disprove the cause and manner of her death.
“Inexplicably, the APD foreclosed any investigation and turned Ms. Han’s death into a three-ring circus,” it would later be described in a lawsuit filed against the city by Han’s family.
I’ve been writing about the suspicious details surrounding Han’s death, the way APD and the state Office of the Medical Investigator handled the case and the Han family’s quest for answers since August 2011 – a dozen columns in all, and you can find them on our website.
The columns discuss the many ways the family, through attorney Rosario Vega Lynn, have sought answers, sought to hold the investigators accountable and sought an apology for the way her death was treated. Claims have been filed in courts from the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. A scathing attorney general’s report condemned the APD investigation into her death as “terribly mishandled.”
So far, those efforts have not produced the desired result, with cases in both state and federal court being dismissed. The state case is under appeal.
“Having worked on this case for so long, I can unequivocally say that society places a huge burden on any family who is demanding answers from public servants, whether it be law enforcement or the medical examiner,” Vega Lynn said. “The family should be given the benefit of any doubt, because they knew Mary and her dreams. Suicide is a selfish act, and Mary’s family knows she was not a selfish person. Both APD and the OMI rushed to judgment: They saw a woman’s body in a car and high carbon monoxide levels. What they didn’t see were any hoses from the exhaust to the interior of the car. They didn’t see closed car windows, and they didn’t see a suicide note. A woman’s body and an unattended death do not allow any professional unbiased public official to conclude suicide within hours with no investigation into the victim’s background.”
The city and OMI continue to maintain they conducted an appropriate investigation. Emails to City Attorney Jessica Hernandez, who was not in her position at the time the Han case began, went unanswered.
Still, the family fights on.
This week, Vega Lynn asked the state Court of Appeals to certify her appeal for expedited review by the state Supreme Court. The appeal involves a portion of the family’s lawsuit filed against the city, alleging APD botched the investigation into Han’s death and spoiled evidence that would have revealed answers as to how she died. That lawsuit was dismissed by state District Judge Carl Butkus in October.
Next month, the family’s case involving the OMI filed in October 2015 finally gets an evidentiary hearing before state District Judge David Thomson in Santa Fe. In that case, the family is asking the judge to issue an order – called a writ of mandamus – compelling the OMI to change the manner of Han’s death from suicide to undetermined. The case is scheduled to be heard Dec. 6-7, though it still faces another hurdle today when attorneys for the OMI attempt again to have the case dismissed.
Those answers may be lost forever. Still, it is right to pursue a legacy for a civil rights attorney like Han, who fought to hold authorities, including law enforcement, accountable.
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 www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.