In one of the oddest lawsuits for 2020, the widow of a crime lab worker is suing the city of San Diego for wrongful death. The way the case unwinds is truly unique and something one might expect in a crime series thanks to its oddball twists and unexpected turns.
It began in 1984, when the body of a 14-year-old girl was found on San Diego’s Torrey Pines State Beach. Young Claire Hough had been raped and murdered and left on the beach. At the time, the science of DNA testing was far into the future, and so the girl’s case sat for decades, waiting for answers.
In 2012, the case was officially reopened and DNA testing put to work. A crime lab found blood on the girl’s jeans and determined it belonged to that of convicted sex offender Ronald Clyde Tatro.
Case closed, right? Sadly, no.
That is because there were trace amounts of another man’s semen detected on the vaginal swab preserved in the girl’s evidence kit. And shockingly enough, it belonged to former crime lab worker Kevin Brown.
Detectives from the San Diego Police Department did what many would say was their only available action and began to view Mr. Brown as a suspect. They obtained a warrant to search his home, and paid a visit.
How likely would it be that a crime lab worker could have murdered someone in 1984, and find himself doing the work that would eventually identify him and put him behind bars? Highly unlikely, and the widow of Mr. Brown filed a lawsuit citing just that fact.
Of course, the fact that the intense scrutiny and pressure from the police drove Mr. Brown to kill himself nine months after the new investigation began adds another terrible twist to the tale. Having suffered for his entire life with depression and anxiety, Mr. Brown had insisted to police that there had to be a mistake and that he’d never met the victim or had any involvement in any crimes.
How did his semen end up on the vaginal swab?
Rebecca Brown’s lawsuit says that, as bizarre as it might sound, cross contamination is the answer.
She argues that it had occurred all of the way back in 1984. According to an article in The Washington Post, Mrs. Brown’s explanation is simple: “Back in the 1980s, the lab’s male technicians kept samples of their semen on hand at the lab for use in quality-control testing. Kevin Brown had suggested to police that this must explain why a tiny sample of his semen may have accidentally ended up among the evidence in the Hough case.”
This initial argument did not jive with the investigators working the reopened case, and the relentlessness of the pain drove Mr. Brown, his wife alleges, to suicide. This is why she filed the wrongful death lawsuit.
And what do police say about it all? According to the same article, the legal team for the city and the police said they do not argue that Mr. Brown had anything to do with the murder of young Claire Hough. What they argue is that there was an absence of proof of contamination and that the investigating team was acting in good faith.
When the case finally made it to court, it was a fast win for Mrs. Brown. She received $6 million from the jury, and the lead investigator was also fined $50k to be paid to the widow for punitive damages.
Having cleared her husband’s name and reputation, Mrs. Brown says she can now take some comfort from the win, but will never get over the anguish caused by careless police work and sloppy lab conditions that led to such a tragedy. In a final twist, Mrs. Brown said she would have limited damages to $1 if the lead investigator had simply apologized.