SAN DIEGO — A jury awarded $6 million Friday to the widow of a retired San Diego Police Department criminalist who committed suicide after he was accused of a 1984 murder.
The attorneys alleged the investigation was begun improperly by San Diego police homicide detectives, driving her husband to suicide.
The verdict was the result of a federal lawsuit alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations filed by Kevin Brown’s widow, Rebecca, against the city of San Diego and its police department. Jurors are due back in court Tuesday to consider punitive damages.
Brown, 62, was suspected in the murder of Claire Hough, who was strangled and found dead at Torrey Pines State Beach in 1984. Brown hanged himself at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in October of 2014, which his lawyers said was a result of the homicide investigation, as well as the seizure of numerous items of sentimental value from his Chula Vista home.
Rebecca Brown’s attorneys alleged now-retired SDPD Detective Michael Lambert misled a judge when securing an affidavit for a warrant to search and seize property at Brown’s home. The affidavit was secured on the basis of Brown’s sperm cells, which were found on a vaginal swab of Hough, though Rebecca Brown’s attorney, Eugene Iredale, said those cells were most likely transferred onto the swab via accidental cross-contamination.
Iredale told jurors that lab techs at the SDPD crime lab often used their own semen as reference samples when conducting testing for the presence of semen.
Other DNA evidence found on Hough’s clothing pointed to another suspect, Ronald Tatro, who was previously convicted in several other rapes and assaults on women. Tatro, who died in 2011, was matched to several blood stains and a pubic hair found on the girl’s clothing, Iredale said.
Despite Tatro’s DNA being far more prominent on the swab, Iredale said Lambert used Brown’s sperm cells and evidence that Brown had frequented strip clubs in the 1980s to suggest he worked in concert with Tatro in the killing.
However, no such connection between the men was ever discovered, nor was Brown ever connected to the murder.
Brown, who suffered from anxiety and depression, was “obsessed with getting his property back,” Iredale said, yet was unable to secure their return over the course of several months.
Iredale said the prospect of spending time in jail while fighting to clear his name and the property seizure was enough to push Brown to suicide.
The attorney said Lambert was aware Brown was suicidal and held onto his property “because he knew it would cause pain and hurt, because he felt he was going to break him down, he was going to crack the case.”
Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson argued at trial that Lambert relied upon DNA experts when he wrote the affidavit and was not given all the information he needed.
The attorney said Lambert asked about contamination when presented with the evidence of Brown’s DNA, but was told by his sergeant that contamination was not possible. She also said Lambert was not informed that SDPD lab techs sometimes used their own semen for testing until months after the search warrant was secured.
Richardson said the items from Brown’s home had to be seized in order to prove or disprove a possible connection between Tatro and Brown, which would have dated back more than three decades, and that a rigid investigation was needed to prove there was no favoritism toward an SDPD employee.
“If he hadn’t investigated (Brown), then the police would have been accused of covering up for one of their own,” Richardson told the jury in her opening statement.