The DNA Results Came Back. And They Were Weird

Kevin Brown's widow argues the SDPD was reckless in its investigation
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 5, 2020 11:44 AM CST
Updated Feb 9, 2020 7:33 AM CST
Lab Worked on a 1984 Murder. Did a Goof Lead to Suicide?
Hope those scissors aren't contaminated...   (Getty Images)

Claire Hough was found murdered on San Diego's Torrey Pines State Beach in August 1984, and the 14-year-old's case languished for decades. In 2012, it was reopened so DNA testing could be carried out. By the end of 2014, someone else was dead—a crime lab worker employed by the lab that had originally handled the evidence. Now his widow is suing the city of San Diego for his wrongful death. In a trial that opened Monday, attorneys for Rebecca Brown set out to make the case that the San Diego Police Department and Homicide Detective Michael Lambert went after Kevin Brown as a suspect when the most obvious conclusion was that his semen was detected amid the evidence due to cross-contamination. He hanged himself in October 2014 at age 62, some 10 months after police began investigating him. Coverage:

  • The Washington Post reports that when Lambert had the evidence DNA tested, the results were weird: The blood on Hough's jeans belonged to convicted sex offender Ronald Clyde Tatro. A trace amount of Kevin Brown's sperm was detected on the vaginal swab.
  • As for how it might have gotten there, Rebecca Brown's lawsuit explains that at the time of Hough's murder, male lab technicians kept their own semen samples on hand to use in quality control testing. When suspicion fell on Kevin Brown, who didn't handle the Hough evidence, he argued that his semen must have somehow been commingled with it.

  • But over the course of the police investigation into him, Brown's mental state worsened. "He was afraid they were going to arrest him, that he would be put in jail and subject to abuse, and he couldn’t stand it," says attorney Eugene Iredale. He argues Lambert secured a search warrant under false pretenses, writing in an affidavit that a lab manager told him there was no possibility of contamination.
  • But on Tuesday came what the San Diego Union-Tribune describes as a "surprise admission" from a colleague of Brown's who said not just that it was possible, but that he might have caused it. John Simms says that while he previously affirmed he used only his own semen sample when conducting tests to verify that the chemicals were working right, "I cannot be certain whose [sample] I used," he told the court. "I don't want to believe I made a mistake, but I have to admit it's a possibility."
  • The court also heard that the lab practices of the '80s weren't as stringent as they are now. Gloves and masks weren't always worn, and the tools used by the lab workers were cleaned with water or alcohol; bleach is now standard.
  • Even with better practices, the Union-Tribune notes that the lawsuit details 41 instances of contamination that have occurred at the San Diego Police Department since 2001.
  • Police executed a search warrant in January 2014, seizing anything that might establish a tie between Brown and Tatro, who died in 2011, or indicate an interest in teen girls. That included 20,000 photos dating to the 1930s, cameras, and computers. No tie ever surfaced. Rebecca Brown said her husband became obsessed with getting his things back, which she says he thought would indicate that the police had indeed concluded there was zero evidence linking him to the crime.
  • CBS8 reports that in her opening statement, Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson argued that Brown was depressed and had gone off his anti-anxiety medication, and that his suicide resulted from his own actions. The Union-Tribune reports the defense doesn't intend to argue that Brown was involved in Hough's murder, but maintains the detectives were doing their job and would have been harshly criticized had they not thoroughly investigated their former colleague.
  • The Post points out that 4 days after Brown's hanging, police put out a news release saying his suicide came as "preparations were being made for Kevin Brown’s arrest," spurring headlines that cast him in a guilty light.
(More crime lab stories.)

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