Friday, March 24, 2023

State Supreme Court Steps Into Controversy Surrounding Prominent ABQ Civil Rights Attorney's Death

Arguments to open investigation into suicide ruling will start this week


One day before the 12th anniversary of her death, attorneys for Mary Y. C. Han’s family will argue in front of the New Mexico Supreme Court to have the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) change the manner of death from suicide to undetermined. Han, a respected civil rights attorney, was found dead in her garage in the North Valley on Nov. 18, 2010. Since then, her family has been fighting for justice they believe she has never gotten.

“I want justice for my sister. She spent her whole life giving justice to others,” Liz Wallbro, Han’s sister, said at the time. Wallbro is the personal representative for her sister's estate. Han is also survived by a daughter and many other family members.

Who Was Mary Han?

Han was known for filing high-profile civil rights lawsuits, often against the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and its higher-ups. Her law partner at the time of her death was Paul Kennedy, a well-known criminal defense attorney who was appointed to the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2012 but lost at lost at the next election. According to a published report by a UNM professor, Han had begun to talk about dissolving the partnership prior to her death. Kennedy found Han at her house after she failed to show up to work. According to the family's lawsuit, 911 tapes showed that when he called he told the dispatcher that Han had died of an "accidental suicide."

Her death was first ruled as a suicide by carbon monoxide. But her family contended that she would never kill herself. At the time of the Han's death and the OMI ruling, then Attorney General Gary King stepped in to say that he thought the investigation was "terribly handled" by Albuquerque Police and the cause of death should be ruled "undetermined," not suicide. The factors AG investigators found: up to 60 people were given access to the scene while it was being investigated which normally would be interference with the investigations process; significant items including two heirloom diamond rings valued at $100,000 were taken from the scene; and a high-ranking APD official at the scene called it a suicide before any investigation was done.

Scales of Justice

In 2012, the family filed a lawsuit against APD for violating Han's state constitutional protections as a crime victim and for mishandling the case, in part by allowing dozens of people to walk through the crime scene. The family lost the case, but it brought out many questions with few answers. They also filed a petition in state District Court to have the official cause of death changed to "undetermined." In August 2018, District Judge David Thomson granted the family’s request to change the manner of death from suicide to undetermined. Attorneys for OMI filed an appeal and in March 2021 the lower court’s ruling was overturned, leaving the manner of death as suicide. In March 2022, Han's family attorneys filed a request for a high-court review and it was granted.

The hearing is set for 1:30pm Nov. 17 and can be streamed here:


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