Two attorneys and their client sat in a restaurant in Santa Fe over guacamole and chips and raised their glasses to the end of long days of testimony and six long years of fighting for answers, accountability, justice and perhaps even an apology for the way prominent civil rights attorney Mary Han was treated in death.
They won’t get all that. For the most part, those are remedies no court can grant.
But what happened this week in a Santa Fe courtroom was still satisfying, still vindicating, they said, because much of what they have alleged for years finally emerged with the often shocking and disturbing testimony of several key witnesses who, before now, had not been heard publicly.
That’s not nothing.
This week, state District Judge David Thomson of Santa Fe heard the petition filed on behalf of the Han family by attorneys Rosario Vega Lynn and Diane Garrity seeking an order – called a writ of mandamus – that would compel the state Office of the Medical Investigator to change the manner of Han’s death from suicide to undetermined.
Thomson didn’t rule on the petition, giving the parties 45 days to file additional briefs.
Han, you may recall, was an Albuquerque attorney you either loved or hated but certainly respected for her tenacity and fearlessness. She was 53, at the peak of health and about to start her own law firm after parting ways with longtime partner Paul Kennedy when she was found dead Nov. 18, 2010, in her car in the garage of her North Valley townhome of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The first officers on the scene from both the Albuquerque Fire Department and the Albuquerque Police Department testified this week that they classified Han’s death as suspicious and a “possible crime scene,” but the APD officers say they were thwarted in their efforts to conduct a proper investigation when dozens of the highest-ranking APD and city officials descended on the house.
APD officers Tim Lonz and Jacob Welch testified that they arrived at the Han home just after 12:30 p.m. Kennedy was outside and Han was dead in the garage, seated in the driver’s seat of her white BMW, the windows rolled down, her feet propped on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel. She was dressed in gym clothes and wearing reading glasses.
A clear plastic bag was under one leg. A blue gym bag, a laptop in another bag, a bathrobe and a glass of clear liquid were also in the car, they testified.
Both noted an odor of car exhaust throughout the house strong enough to induce headaches. Welch testified that the odor was so pungent that the car must have only recently been shut off. But the engine, he said, was cold. That, he said, was enough to raise his suspicions.
Later, he determined that the battery was dead but that the car still had a half-tank of gas.
Lonz testified that in the home he saw a folder or notebook on a table with a copy of an email bearing the name of then-Deputy Chief Allen Banks. Lonz said he alerted Banks, a friend, by text.
“It was none of my business and no one else’s business either,” Lonz said.
Banks showed up along with other high-ranking APD and city officials – an estimated 30 to 50 people who walked through the house, shut the garage door and ordered Lonz and Welch outside.
That was frustrating, Lonz testified, because he wanted to call a criminalistics team of investigators and detectives to the scene and he was concerned that the scene itself was being contaminated by so many people traipsing through the house.
Welch also testified that before he was sent outside he saw Banks rifling through folders on a table.
“He said he was looking for a suicide note,” Welch said.
Later, Welch testified that before both he and Banks were scheduled to be deposed for a separate lawsuit in the Han case, Banks told him: “Your testimony better match mine.”
“I took that as a threat,” Welch said.
(Banks was named interim police chief in 2013 then left APD a year later to become police chief in Round Rock, Texas. A message left with his office was not returned.)
The folder with Banks’ email was never found, according to testimony. Nor was the laptop in the car, which was given to Kennedy, along with Han’s cellphone, in violation of APD protocol.
Many things that occurred that day were in violation or simply not done. Former longtime chief medical investigator Dr. Ross Zumwalt testified that neither the state Office of the Medical Investigator nor APD had considered Han’s bank statements, credit card records, medical records, cellphone records, the other prescription medications in her system, such as Ambien, or the contents of her laptop to determine a manner of death. They hadn’t tested the air in the house, the clear liquid in the glass or the plastic bag in the car; nor had they questioned the positioning of her body in the car.
And during this week’s hearing, when Zumwalt was provided that additional information by forensic pathology experts and the Attorney General’s Office – after he was told APD had contaminated the death scene and not conducted a full investigation – he testified he was “even more convinced” Han died of suicide, placing his level of certainty at 95 percent.
Zumwalt’s testimony was enough to drop jaws and shake heads and bring tears to the eyes of Han’s sister, Elizabeth Wallbro.
It will take weeks before the judge decides on whether to grant the writ. Whichever way it goes, the legal odyssey, which has included other claims now dismissed save for one last appeal, is likely over.
It was, I think, a fight Han would have been proud of.
That night in the Santa Fe restaurant there were no more tears.
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.