SAN DIEGO (CN) — The wife of a retired San Diego Police Department crime lab worker implicated in a cold-case murder investigation when his sperm turned up on retested evidence decades later asked a jury Thursday to award her $12 million for suffering she claims caused her husband to kill himself.
“She seeks a verdict that gives her peace and seeks recognition of the pain and horror that was caused unnecessarily by the conduct of the police,” attorney Eugene Iredale, representing Rebecca Brown and the Estate of Kevin Brown, told the jury of two women and five men.
Brown claims cold-case homicide detective Michael Lambert violated her and her husband’s rights by lying and omitting material information in obtaining a search warrant to seek a link between Brown and Ronald Tatro when both men’s DNA turned up on evidence from the 1984 murder and sexual assault of 14-year-old Claire Hough.
Until recently, crime lab workers used their own semen samples as controls when mixing chemicals to test evidence. During a taped interview between Brown and Lambert shown at trial, Brown said it had to be contamination but didn’t tell Lambert explicitly that his own semen was used in the lab.
Lambert said he did not learn of the lab practice until he interviewed Rebecca Brown’s family members a month before Kevin Brown’s death in October 2014. He testified he was “shocked.”
The affidavit Lambert worked on for a year did not mention the possibility of contamination even though the SDPD lab workers who testified during trial said they never would have ruled it out. Nor did the affidavit mention that sperm cells were not initially found on the swabs obtained by the medical examiner in 1984.
Tatro had acted as a “predatory lone wolf,” Iredale said Thursday, when he committed three sexual assaults and was sentenced to 40 years for rape.
He was paroled and prosecuted again in 1985 for trying to kidnap a San Diego woman and using a stun gun on her.
Tatro’s blood was found in 13 places on Hough’s jeans and underwear. What’s known as “touch DNA” from Tatro also was found on the zipper of Hough’s ripped jeans, as was one of his pubic hairs.
During testimony Thursday morning, Lambert said investigators never found any evidence connecting Tatro and Brown.
But because trace amounts of Brown’s semen were found during testing in 2012 of a vaginal swab taken from Hough’s body, detectives had to investigate one of their own.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw found previously that the warrant — which sought documents including handwritten notes and journals and photographs — was overly broad, so jurors will be tasked will deciding what damages should be awarded.
“It was the fruit of an illegal seizure and he was exploiting it to hurt a vulnerable person,” Iredale said of Lambert.
Brown also sued Det. Maura Mekenas-Parga for her involvement in overseeing the execution of a search warrant of the Browns’ home, though Iredale said Thursday the main defendant was Lambert.
Brown is not seeking punitive damages against Mekenas-Parga.
Iredale said that even though Lambert knew within about a month the 14 boxes of family mementos seized from the Brown’s home in January 2014 contained no evidence connecting Kevin Brown and Tatro, he did not return the items to put pressure on Brown to confess.
In the months leading up to her husband’s suicide, Rebecca Brown had called Lambert about six times seeking the return of the items.
“When a man is innocent, you don’t get a confession, you get a suicide,” Iredale said.
Iredale rattled off a list of some of the items seize,d including a cookbook and photographs of Rebecca’s mother’s wedding.
At one point Iredale walked over to the stack of boxes in the corner of the courtroom, grabbed a handful of papers, and walked back to face the jury.
“Let’s see what this valuable evidence is that was seized in the warrant,” Iredale said before reading the details of an old wedding invitation.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. These little pieces of paper are her treasure. To everyone else, they’re trash,” Iredale said.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson said when he was assigned the case in late 2012 the first question Lambert asked his sergeant was whether there could be contamination.
He was assured it had been ruled out, Richardson said.
She said the “whole purpose” of the warrant was to determine whether there was a connection between Tatro and Brown and disputed that Lambert had “left out” information unfavorable to Brown when drafting the affidavit.
When interviewed by investigators and told his semen was found on evidence from Hough’s murder, Brown never mentioned he kept his own semen sample in the same lab where the evidence was processed.
“It was the perfect opportunity to say that and he didn’t,” Richardson said.
Brown initially said he didn’t know how his semen got there and said he must have had sex with Hough, even calling his old roommates to see if they remembered him sleeping with her, Richardson said.
As for the return of the seized property, Richardson said if the family was upset it had not been returned they could have sought a court order — after all, they’d hired an attorney, and Rebecca Brown’s brother was a criminal defense attorney.
She said for that reason Brown hadn’t suffered damages due to the seizure and should be awarded only $1.
Jurors were to begin deliberations Friday morning.