Jury awards $6M to widow of man falsely accused of murder
by NEAL PUTNAM
Published - 02/17/20 - 07:00 AM | 2398 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Blue tinted monotone image of a gavel and scales of justice
Blue tinted monotone image of a gavel and scales of justice
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After only about five hours of deliberations, a federal jury awarded $6 million in damages Feb. 14 for the widow of a crime lab employee who committed suicide after he was falsely accused of killing a girl at Torrey Pines State Beach in 1984.

        A five-man, two women civil jury in U.S. District Court awarded the damages to Rebecca Brown and the estate of her husband, Larry Brown, who hung himself on Oct. 20, 2014, at age 62.

       The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in 2015 against San Diego Police, detectives Michael Lambert and Maura Mekenas-Parga.  Jurors awarded the damages from San Diego Police and Lambert but awarded only $1 in damages from Mekenas-Parga.

        Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the attorneys not to comment afterward after he announced the same jury will return on Tuesday, Feb. 18 to hear evidence regarding the punitive damage phase of the trial, which began on Feb. 3.

        San Diego Police issued a press release two days after Brown's suicide saying that he and Ronald Tatro were linked to the 1984 strangulation of Claire Hough, 14, who was found dead on the beach with one of her breasts severed. Tatro's DNA was found in numerous places on her body, but he drowned in 2011.

        DNA tests could not be done in 1984, but they were ordered in 2012 after Lambert joined the cold case homicide unit. Brown's DNA was found in a small quantity of the vaginal swab collected during the girl's autopsy.

        Crime lab employees testified that it was possible that contamination occurred that falsely implicated Brown because male lab employees had used their own dried semen samples as a control method. In 1984, crime lab employees did not always use gloves and did not cleanse scissors with bleach. 

          The girl was from Rhode Island and was visiting her grandparents who lived the Torrey Pines beach at the time. According to testimony, she sneaked out of her grandparents' home at 9:30 p.m. and was found dead on the beach the next morning. A similar murder occurred at the same beach in 1978 that is unsolved.

         Jurors had to answer approximately 15 questions in their verdict forms that cited several constitutional amendments regarding searches and equal protection under the law. 

        Jurors got to read the 34-page affidavit that Lambert wrote to a judge who authorized a search of Brown's possessions. Fourteen boxes were taken from the home that included thousands of family photos, recipes, a 1937 yearbook, and family mementos. Those 14 boxes were stacked up as exhibits in court.

        Rebecca Brown's attorney, Eugene Iredale, asked for $8 million in damages. Iredale told jurors Kevin Brown was depressed, anxious, especially after the police did not return his possessions. They returned the boxes after he died.

        Pointing to the boxes in court, Iredale said police "seized thousands of photographs they had no right to seize."

        "They defamed a dead man because of their inept investigation," argued Iredale. "He (Brown) trusted them. They manipulated him."

        Iredale alleged that the affidavit that Lambert wrote did not mention contamination as a reason Brown's DNA came up.  Brown retired from that office in 2002 and Lambert has also retired.

        Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson urged jurors on Feb. 13 to order damages for $1 per detective, and she cited a previous court ruling that said some damages have to be awarded. Richardson said Lambert was never told that DNA contamination was possible and in fact, he was told it was ruled out.

        "He had a distinguished career as a detective. He was an officer for almost 30 years," argued Richardson, who said the two detectives had their "reputations dragged through the mud" in the trial.

        "There was enough evidence there they had to investigate," said Richardson, who argued that Lambert did not lie or give false information in the affidavit.

         Richardson said that when Brown was questioned by detectives, he did not bring up the practice of crime lab employees using their semen as a controlling factor in tests. "He's volunteering information," she said.

         Brown told detectives he remembered having sex with a young woman in the early 1980's and thought her name might be Claire.  He said it was in a downtown hotel, but detectives doubted that story because the girl was murdered at the beach.

         Brown made calls to his former roommates in the 1980's to see if they recalled anything. He then called back and said not to share the info with police, said Richardson.  

         Richardson also said that Brown made the decision to commit suicide and was not driven to it by the seizure of the boxes or detectives who questioned him.  He was never arrested.  She said Brown never went to court to get the property back.

         Iredale said Brown did hire an attorney to discuss how to get the 14 boxes and computers back, but the attorney told him his name might become public if he filed a lawsuit.  Iredale said the attorney advised that as long as the murder investigation continued, his property would likely still be held.

         The trial started with seven jurors and one alternate, but one juror had to leave and the alternate took his place.

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