SAN DIEGO (CN) – A San Diego Police Department detective who investigated one of his own – retired criminalist Kevin Brown – in a cold-case murder investigation sat in court Monday in the first day of a wrongful-death trial brought by Brown’s widow.
Detectives Michael Lambert and Maura Mekenas-Parga sat at the defense table in U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw’s courtroom. Lambert is accused of lying on a search warrant used to ransack Brown’s family home after Brown was implicated in the 1984 cold case murder of 14-year-old Claire Hough when his semen turned up in a retested sample.
Brown’s widow Rebecca “Becky” Brown claims Lambert and Mekenas-Parga drove one of their own to kill himself. Brown was found dead weeks after police seized 14 boxes of family mementos including photographs, a Bible and a straw purse during a criminal investigation.
Brown’s attorney Eugene Iredale told the jury of six men and two women Monday that Lambert violated Brown’s civil rights by lying on an affidavit used to obtain a search warrant of the Brown family’s home.
He pointed to 14 tattered brown boxes in court containing the family’s seized possessions, including 30,000 photographs and a yearbook belonging to Rebecca’s mother.
“Things that were seized not for the purpose of investigating a crime, but to embarrass and put pressure on Kevin Brown,” Iredale said.
“It was pieces of their lives. Not a one of those things has anything to do with criminal activity,” Iredale added.
While Brown’s semen was found on retested vaginal swabs taken from Hough’s body following her murder, Iredale said it was a case of cross-contamination as DNA collection and testing standards in the 1980s did not employ the same tactics as today. Notably, crime lab workers brought in their own semen samples to use as a control when testing for sperm on crime evidence.
“In 1984, we didn’t have DNA, we used a completely different set of tests and didn’t know the precaution that needed to be taken,” Iredale said.
Brown’s semen wasn’t found in further testing done in the decades following Hough’s murder until it was retested in 2012 and turned up alongside blood stains on Hough’s jeans belonging to Ronald Tatro, a convicted rapist.
Iredale said only 150 of Brown’s sperm cells were found on the swab – a miniscule amount that wasn’t detectable until DNA technology improved. But he said the sample didn’t indicate Brown had sex with the underage Hough, as the average amount of sperm in an ejaculation ranges from 200 to 600 million cells.
“It’s exactly the kind of thing that indicates a contamination event,” Iredale said.
Iredale said when Lambert sought a search warrant “he omitted things any reasonable officer would have told the judge,” including the likelihood of contamination in a lab setting where technicians wouldn’t always use gloves. For example, Iredale said crime lab employees would use their bare hands to feel for “crusty substances” when attempting to detect semen on evidence.
To get the warrant, Iredale said Lambert “painted” Brown as a pervert by referring to Brown’s habit of attending strip clubs and photographing nude women in the 1980s.
Brown was “obsessed,” with getting back his things, Iredale said, keeping a calendar and marking it off every day. Rebecca called Lambert six times requested their items be returned, he added.
“He kept them because he knew it would cause pain and hurt. He knew it was going to crack him; it was going to break him down,” Iredale said.
But San Diego Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson disputed Lambert was trying to accomplish anything other than justice when he was assigned to investigate the cold case shortly after joining the unit in 2012.
“There’s nothing in the Fourth Amendment that gives a person a right to be free from investigation,” Richardson said.
“Detective Lambert had to rule out – or rule in – Kevin Brown,” Richardson added.
Richardson said when Lambert was assigned the case, he was told by his sergeant that contamination was not an issue and had already been ruled out. He also didn’t learn until months after the search warrant was issued that crime lab workers at the time used their own semen when performing lab tests.
Brown’s nickname was “Kinky Kevin,” Richardson said, and he had been reprimanded at work for sexually harassing female employees including asking a records clerk to pose for nude photographs and reading a sexual assault crime report to a co-worker.
The warrant had been given the green light by a deputy district attorney and Lambert’s supervisor after a year of investigation, Richardson said.
And Brown never told detectives he’d used his own semen as a control during lab testing, telling investigators “they were meticulous and there was minimal contamination.”
When Rebecca Brown requested their property be returned, she never told Lambert her husband was anxious, depressed or suicidal because of the property seizure, Richardson said.
The family never asked the court to order the return of their property either, she added.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.