Comment
0
Tweet
1
Print
RSS Feeds

Police scrutinized over of adversary's death

Wednesday - 3/13/2013, 5:22pm  ET

Mary Han, a successful civil rights attorney who for decades battled over the rights of abused women, accused prostitutes and the homeless in Albuquerque, N.M., is seen in this undated, handout photo released by a representative of the family. More than two years after Han was found dead in her garage in what authorities deemed a suicide, the city's police department is under scrutiny amid questions over whether officers mishandled the investigation into the death of their former adversary. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Wallbro,HO)

JERI CLAUSING
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Mary Han was a successful civil rights attorney who for decades battled over the rights of abused women, accused prostitutes and the homeless. In the close-knit Albuquerque legal community, she was known as a spitfire whose fervor was often directed at one entity in particular: The city's troubled police department.

Now, more than two years after Han was found dead in her garage in what authorities deemed a suicide, the department is under scrutiny amid questions over whether officers mishandled the investigation into the death of their former adversary.

The state attorney general's office is looking into the matter. It has also asked federal officials, who last year launched a civil rights probe into the department's high number of police shootings, to look at the case.

Han's relatives, meantime, have sued the city -- along with the police chief, public safety director and more than a dozen officers and investigators -- alleging shoddy police work resulted in a flawed investigation. More so, they question whether police failed to look at other explanations for the feisty and notoriously foul-mouthed attorney's death.

"I would like to know what happened to my mother someday," said Han's 28-year-old daughter, Katherine, who remains steadfast in her belief that her mother did not kill herself. "To have an important person removed from their life without explanation is something no one should ever have to deal with. It's more about peace of mind."

Friends and fellow lawyers have also expressed doubt about suicide, noting that the 53-year-old Han was not one to give up on anything. But what really happened to Mary Han the night of Nov. 17, 2010, may forever remain a mystery.

Han's law partner, Paul Kennedy, discovered her body the next morning in the garage of her home after she failed to come to work or contact her assistant.

She was sitting in the driver's seat of her BMW, reading glasses on, feet propped up on the dash with the driver's door and the windows open, according to police reports. Found in the car were a pair of brown slippers, a robe with a bottle of Ambien in the pocket and a glass with clear liquid. The door between the garage and the house was open.

The lawsuit brought by Han's daughter and sister alleges a series of missteps that followed the discovery of her body, beginning with the seemingly extraordinary number of people who showed up to "trample" through the house and death scene. Police reports back claims that more than two dozen officers and city officials went to the house that day, and many saw Han's body.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges police violated standard procedure by almost immediately declaring the case a suicide and failing to lock down the home for processing as a potential crime scene. It also claims officers failed to properly preserve evidence, noting that two family heirloom diamond rings worth $100,000 that Han wore regularly were missing and never found.

An autopsy found the carbon monoxide level in Han's blood to be 84.8 percent, and the medical examiner declared her death a suicide. The lawsuit also notes that investigators at the scene said Han's car was outfitted with a device to shut it down before toxic amounts of carbon monoxide could be released, and that it was neither running nor had run out of gas when Han was found. A later police report questions whether the car had such a device.

The lawsuit also contends the carbon monoxide level is "incredibly high" and, therefore, an "improbable cause of death" from ambient exposure.

In one police report, former Albuquerque officer Thomas Grover said he found it unusual that Han's car door and windows were open. He noted that in previous car suicides he had investigated, the windows were rolled up and the vehicles secured.

"Something really bad happened, and APD made it worse," said Grover, who was a close friend of Han's and quit the department over her case. As one of the officers on scene that day, he is named in the family's lawsuit, even though he agrees with its assessment that the department "really dropped the ball with so many things."

The police department referred questions to the city attorney's office. Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Levy said the investigation was complete and thorough. "Allegations ... are just that. They must be proved, and the evidence will not support the allegations," she said.

Levy said the police on scene were respectful and professional. Others noted that many of those who visited the scene were officials who had come to know Han over the years and considered her a friend, even if they were on the opposing side of her lawsuits.

   1 2  -  Next page  >>