Ronald Clyde Tatro (left) and Kevin Charles Brown
Ronald Clyde Tatro (left) and Kevin Charles Brown. Photo via CBS8.com

A jury awarded $6 million Friday to the widow of a San Diego criminalist who committed suicide after being accused of the 1984 murder of a teen girl.

Her attorneys alleged that San Diego police homicide detectives improperly launched the investigation. The assertions drove Kevin C. Brown to suicide, they argued.

Brown’s widow, Rebecca, filed a federal lawsuit alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations. The suit targeted the city of San Diego and its police department.

Jurors return to court Tuesday to consider punitive damages.

Claire Hough, who was found murdered on Torrey Pines Beach in 1984. Courtesy San Diego Police

Detectives identified Brown, 62, as a suspect in the murder of Claire Hough, 14. She was strangled and found dead at Torrey Pines State Beach in 1984.

Brown, by then retired, hanged himself at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in October 2014. His lawyers said he died due to the investigation. They argued he also suffered because of the seizure of numerous items of sentimental value from his home.

Rebecca Brown’s attorneys alleged now-retired SDPD Detective Michael Lambert misled a judge when securing an affidavit for a warrant to seize the property.

A judge granted the request on the basis of Brown’s sperm cells, which were found on a vaginal swab of Hough. Rebecca Brown’s attorney, Eugene Iredale, said those cells were most likely transferred  via accidental cross-contamination.

Iredale told jurors that lab techs at the SDPD crime lab often used their own semen as reference samples when conducting testing for the presence of semen.

Other DNA evidence found on Hough’s clothing pointed to another suspect, Ronald Tatro.

Tatro, previously convicted of several other rapes and assaults on women, died in 2011.  Several blood stains and a pubic hair found on the girl’s clothing, Iredale said, matched Tatro.

Tatro’s DNA was far more prominent on the swab, Iredale said. Despite that, Lambert used Brown’s sperm cells and evidence that Brown once had frequented strip clubs to suggest he joined Tatro in the killing.

However, investigators discovered no such connection between the men.

Brown, who suffered from anxiety and depression, became “obsessed with getting his property back,” Iredale said. Yet after several months of attempts, he could not.

The attorney said that failure, in addition to the prospect of spending time in jail while fighting to clear his name, pushed Brown to suicide.

Iredale said Lambert was aware Brown was suicidal and held onto his property. “He knew it would cause pain and hurt, because he felt he was going to break him down, he was going to crack the case,” the lawyer said.

Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson argued at trial that Lambert relied upon DNA experts when he wrote the affidavit. The detective, she said, did not receive all the information he needed.

The attorney said Lambert asked about contamination when presented with the evidence of Brown’s DNA. His sergeant, though, told him that was not possible. She also said no one informed Lambert  that SDPD lab techs sometimes used their own semen for testing until months later.

Richardson said investigators had to seize items from Brown’s home in Chula Vista in order to prove or disprove a connection between Tatro and Brown, which would have dated back more than three decades at that point.

The situation called for a rigid investigation, she added, to prove there was no favoritism toward an SDPD employee.

“If he hadn’t investigated (Brown), then the police would have been accused of covering up for one of their own,” Richardson told the jury in her opening statement.

– City News Service