SAN DIEGO (CN) – Asked to look at the contents of a tattered box set on the witness stand filled with photos and personal items seized under a warrant he signed in the investigation of a cold-case murder, a retired San Diego Police Department detective said Thursday the items should not have been seized.
“Anything in there having to do with any of the items set forth in the search warrant?” attorney Eugene Iredale asked retired SDPD Detective Michael Lambert.
“No sir,” Lambert responded.
Iredale represents Rebecca Brown, the widow of retired SDPD criminalist Kevin Brown who killed himself while under investigation by his former employer for the 1984 cold-case murder of 14-year-old Claire Hough after trace amounts of his sperm showed up on a retested vaginal swab in 2012. Brown filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against San Diego, which went to trial on Monday.
Brown had been working in the crime lab at the time physical evidence from Hough’s murder was processed but his sperm didn’t show up until decades later due to improvements in DNA testing method technology.
Up until about 2013 – including when Brown worked at the lab – lab workers brought in their own semen samples to use as a control when testing for sperm on crime evidence.
His widow claims the case is one of cross-contamination.
Rebecca Brown says her husband was distraught investigators did not return 14 boxes of personal items they seized from the family’s home during their investigation, leading to his suicide in October 2014.
During questioning by Iredale Thursday, Lambert admitted within about a month of the seizure he had determined there was no evidence any of the documents, photos and personal belongings seized by the Browns had anything to do with Hough’s murder.
Slides of the seized items were displayed on television in court, including images of a Bible, religious photos, newspaper clippings about sports teams, old letters and a cookbook.
Even though Rebecca Brown had asked for the items back about six times, Lambert didn’t authorize their return until after her husband’s death.
A forensic examination of the family’s computers didn’t turn up any searches related to Hough’s murder either, Lambert acknowledged, but he didn’t give the Browns their computers back.
Iredale also questioned Lambert’s lack of documentation regarding conversations he had with DNA crime lab workers who worked with Kevin Brown or during the time Hough’s DNA was re-analyzed by the lab.
Lambert heard second-hand from his sergeant the DNA lab director told him cross-contamination had been ruled out as a possible explanation why Kevin Brown’s semen showed up on retested DNA evidence from Hough.
But he never asked the lab supervisor himself if contamination was impossible and did not take notes from conversations he referenced in the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant.
That supervisor – Patrick O’Donnell – also testified Thursday. But he contradicted Lambert’s statement he assured homicide detectives contamination wasn’t a possibility, saying “no reputable expert would say contamination does not occur.”
“I would not preclude that. I would tell them DNA contamination is possible,” O’Donnell added.
O’Donnell was at the meeting between homicide investigators and DNA lab personnel Lambert referenced in his affidavit.
While he couldn’t recall specifics of the meeting, O’Donnell said he would have shared his concern the crime evidence analysis was done in the 80s and the procedures that were appropriate then are not sufficient for DNA analysis done today.
There could have been contamination, O’Donnell said.
He also offered alternative theories for how Brown’s sperm could have ended up on the vaginal swab taken from Hough, including he could have had sex with the victim several days before her death.
He also said Brown could have had a low sperm count or it could have been pre-ejaculate.
Lambert was expected to continue testifying Monday. He is represented by San Diego Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson.