A jury awarded $50,000 in punitive damages Tuesday to the widow and estate of a retired San Diego Police Department criminalist who committed suicide after he was accused of a cold case murder, adding to $6 million in compensatory damages awarded last week.
The verdicts were the result of a federal lawsuit alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations filed by Kevin Brown’s widow, Rebecca, against SDPD homicide detectives Michael Lambert and Maura Mekenas-Parga.
Brown, 62, was suspected in the murder of 14-year-old Claire Hough, who was strangled and found dead at Torrey Pines State Beach in 1984.
Brown, who suffered from anxiety and depression, hanged himself at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in October 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.
“We are very happy today that after more than five-and-a-half years, this case has been resolved by a decision of a jury that vindicated the rights of Rebecca Brown and the reputation of her husband, Kevin Brown,” Rebecca Brown’s attorney, Eugene Iredale, told reporters during a news conference at his office.
Iredale alleged Lambert misled a judge when securing an affidavit for a warrant to search and seize property at the Browns’ home.
The affidavit was secured on the basis of Brown’s sperm cells, which were found on a vaginal swab of Hough, though Iredale said those cells were most likely transferred onto the swab via accidental cross-contamination, as lab techs at the SDPD crime lab often used their own semen as reference samples when conducting testing for the presence of semen.
The attorneys alleged the investigation was brought on improperly by the homicide detectives, driving Kevin Brown to suicide.
In addition to the jury’s findings, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who oversaw the trial, previously found in favor of Rebecca Brown in one of her causes of action, which alleged the detectives’ search went beyond the scope of the warrant they obtained to search the Browns’ home.
Rebecca Brown said after Tuesday’s verdict, “I’m very relieved and I know that Kevin was finally vindicated. My voice was heard and his voice was heard.”
Brown said the pain of her husband’s death was compounded by the police department publicly decrying him as a murderer soon after she received her husband’s body from the morgue.
“I couldn’t believe they actually said that when they never had any proof other than a cross-contaminated swab,” she said. “That they would publicly say that and dishonor him in death, when they never had anything to arrest him in life … I called (former SDPD Police) Chief (Shelley) Zimmerman’s office multiple times to receive a retraction, and I never received a reply.”
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 the presence of Brown’s sperm cells to suggest he worked in concert with Tatro in the killing.
However, no connection between the men was ever discovered, nor was Brown ever connected to the murder.
Iredale said the case illustrated how DNA evidence was “both a gift and a danger,” as the results can be misleading and carry heavy consequences.
“The lesson of this case is that we have to take care, that our criminal justice system requires infinite sensitivity and discrimination,” Iredale said. “It requires intelligence and it requires the ability not to take the simple, easy conclusion before looking at everything.”