SAN DIEGO (CN) – A California jury awarded $50,000 in punitive damages Tuesday to the widow and estate of a crime lab worker who killed himself after being wrongly implicated in a murder investigation.
The jury found former San Diego Police Department detective Michael Lambert should be punished for misleading a judge when obtaining a search warrant in a cold-case murder investigation. Jurors awarded Rebecca Brown $10,000 in punitive damages following her husband Kevin Brown’s suicide in October 2014 after his semen showed up on retested evidence from the 1984 cold-case murder of 14-year-old Claire Hough.
Jurors also awarded the Estate of Kevin Brown $40,000 in punitive damages Tuesday, leaving retired detective Michael Lambert on the hook to foot the bill.
A crime lab worker, Brown believed the evidence was contaminated because he and other lab employees at the time used their own semen samples as a control when mixing chemicals to test crime scene evidence.
Rebecca Brown, a Catholic school teacher, said her husband “was finally vindicated.”
“Until it was heard and until I could make people understand what happened, I couldn’t rest and I knew Kevin’s soul couldn’t rest. Since the verdict on Friday I have felt that he could finally rest in peace and that I’ll be able to live in peace,” Brown said at a press conference following the trial Tuesday
Lambert testified Tuesday morning about his finances, confirming he has a net worth of about $6,000. He said the $6 million verdict returned by the jury in the case Friday was like a “gut punch.”
“I believed I did the best I could on this case and was surprised the jury did not think so,” Lambert said.
While Lambert said he was remorseful, he didn’t directly apologize to Rebecca Brown, seated at the plaintiff’s counsel table several feet in front of him. He expressed fear about the harm to his reputation and said the case “hurt my pride.”
When questioned by Brown’s attorney Eugene Iredale if he believed he did nothing wrong, there was a lengthy pause before Brown responded.
“I really don’t know how to feel about that, sir,” Brown said.
Iredale pointed out Lambert knew Kevin Brown was suicidal because his wife’s brother had taken away his guns and other family members had told Lambert they believed Brown was suicidal a month before his death.
When addressing jurors, Iredale told them: “You gave back the reputation of a dead man and gave hope to his widow.”
He added, “This defendant shows no acceptance of wrongdoing. The only thing he took from your verdict is ‘my pride is hurt.’”
Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson said the $6 million verdict and finding Lambert had misled the judge when obtaining the search warrant was “punishment enough.”
“That verdict told him you believed his actions caused Mr. Brown’s death. You don’t need to respond with punitive damages because that’s something he has to live with for the rest of his life,” Richardson said.
Richardson said the case was “so fact-specific” there was no need to “send a message” to other police officers through a punitive damages award.
But juror William Fleck told reporters following the trial Tuesday the jury read over the affidavit Lambert wrote to obtain the search warrant and found it wasn’t fair or balanced based on what the detectives knew.
“The evidence he was able to produce was one-sided and biased against Kevin Brown,” Fleck said, noting a lack of records and notes from interviews with crime lab workers.
“I felt a bit of suspicious nothing that might have offered credence to Kevin Brown was included,” Fleck added.
Fleck said he didn’t believe the SDPD wasn’t aware its lab workers used their own semen as a control when conducting testing, pointing out the lab started purchasing semen samples, rather than using their workers’ own samples, in 2012 and 2013 – prior to the warrant being executed on the Browns’ family home.
A statement from the City Attorney’s Office said it is exploring its options for appeal.
“This was a unique case largely based on circumstantial evidence. The jury did not have the opportunity to consider information that would have negated or eliminated taxpayer liability,” the office said.