Opinion writer

This is one of the stranger cases I’ve seen in a while, although the systemic problems that caused the whole ordeal will sound familiar. It’s also quite sad. Here are the facts, from a recent opinion by a federal judge in Southern California.

This case stems from the 1984 murder of 14 year old Claire Hough. Claire’s body was found in the early morning hours at Torrey Pines State Beach. She had been brutally beaten, strangled to death, and mutilated with a knife. The case was reopened after having gone unsolved for decades. Through advancement in DNA technology the San Diego Police Department (“SDPD”) Crime Lab was able to perform further tests in 2012. DNA from a convicted rapist, Ronald Tatro, was found in blood from the victim’s clothing. In addition, a combined sperm fraction taken from a vaginal swab from the victim’s body revealed trace amounts of semen from a second individual, Kevin Brown, who was a former longtime employee of the Crime Lab and employed by the Lab at the time of Claire’s murder.

Plaintiffs claim Brown’s DNA was present through an obvious case of cross contamination, likely due to now-outdated standards used in the Lab in the 1980s when swabs were air dried in the open and DNA science was not developed. Plaintiffs point out that it was common practice at that time for Lab employees to use their own semen samples or samples from their coworkers for testing reagents in the Lab and, as a result, several Lab employees believed the positive hit on Brown’s DNA was due to cross contamination.

The police were made aware of the shoddy lab practices back in the 1980s — the court record shows that they were informed in 2013 at the latest. Yet for reasons that aren’t quite clear, the head of the crime lab also told them that there was no way Brown could have cross-contaminated the sample. Which, of course, led them to believe he participated in the crime. But the lab had a long history of cross-contamination problems. Moreover, the investigators never revealed that during the original autopsy, tests on the vaginal swab taken from the victim were negative for sperm — an indication that the contamination likely came later. The autopsy also found no signs of rape. Nor could the investigators establish any link between Brown and Tatro.

Yet the investigators seemed locked in to the idea that Brown was somehow involved. They then engaged in what seems to have been little more than an effort to confirm their suspicions. They learned that Brown had at times attended strip clubs (gasp!) and that some people at the lab called him by the nickname “Kinky.” Of course, neither an affinity for kinky sex nor visiting strip clubs is indicative of a proclivity toward raping and murdering children. But it was all enough to get a warrant for a search, during which the police confiscated just about everything in Brown’s home that wasn’t bolted to the floor.

In all, the officers seized fourteen (14) boxes from the Browns’ home. (Defs.’ Mot., Ex. O.) The items seized included: (1) “Papers Christmas Letter w/cabin info folder[,]” (2) “Binder `chemical imbalance’ mental health problems[,]” (3) Kevin Brown’s SDPD badge, (4) seven boxes of photos, journals, books, photo albums, paperwork, (5) other loose photos and photo albums, (6) a “callback roster from June 1998 for” SDPD, (7) handwritten cards, (8) notebooks, (9) a drama program from Mater Dei dated March 1, 2013, (10) a file folder titled, “Apple Products,” (11) a file folder titled, “Business Folder,” and (12) a file folder titled “Divorce Annulments[.]”

That was in January 2014. By October, 10 months later, the police still had possession of everything except the computer belonging to Brown’s wife. Which of course meant that despite the fact that the police found nothing incriminating in all of those boxes, Brown still hadn’t been cleared of the crime. Brown grew despondent, so despondent that his wife’s father removed all the guns from the couple’s home. Later that month, Brown hanged himself.

Though the facts of this case are unique, the failures that reportedly drove Brown to suicide aren’t: tunnel-visioned investigators, judges who sign off on broad search warrants with little to no scrutiny, shoddy crime lab work and public officials who can’t bring themselves to admit that the system sometimes makes mistakes (in this case, the crime lab director couldn’t bring herself to admit to problems that existed decades ago).

The good news is that the federal judge has allowed this case to proceed, ruling against the police investigators’ motion for summary judgment.

Thanks to David Woycechowsky for the tip.