For Rebecca Brown, it was never about the money. It was about clearing her husband Kevin’s name after the San Diego Police Department issued a press release days after he committed suicide in 2014 claiming he had killed a child in 1984.
Last Friday, the 66-year-old widow spent a bittersweet Valentine’s Day in a San Diego courthouse, where a jury awarded her $6 million, including $3 million for “the loss of her husband’s companionship.”
And on Tuesday, now-retired SDPD detective Michael Lambert — who Rebecca alleged had misled a judge to secure a warrant to search her husband’s property — was ordered to personally pay her $50,000 in punitive damages.
“I’m sure they will appeal the decision, but now it’s on the record,” Rebecca tells PEOPLE.
Both Rebecca and her attorney were willing to limit the punitive damages to $1 if Lambert had apologized. He didn’t.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that in Tuesday’s hearing, Lambert testified that the verdict was a “gut punch for me. I believed I did the best I could on this case.”
Lambert added the verdict is “forever going to hurt my reputation as a cop.”
Rebecca says Lambert smeared the reputation of Kevin, a former forensic criminologist in the department and Lambert’s former colleague.
In her lawsuit, she alleged the department drove Kevin, who suffered from depression and anxiety, to suicide with their allegation that he killed a 14-year-old girl.
“When the unanimous judgment came down, it meant the detective was wrong and it was total vindication for Kevin,” Rebecca tells PEOPLE. “The San Diego Police department issued that press release and thought, ‘Case closed!’ But I was not going to let that happen.”
It was a victory in Rebecca’s quest to clear her husband’s name, but small comfort for the Catholic school teacher who thought she would spend her retirement with her beloved husband she described as a “gentle person who would never hurt anyone.”
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The couple’s lives were turned upside-down when a sensational cold case appeared to link Brown through DNA. The teen girl, Claire Hough, was found at Torrey Pines State Beach brutally beaten, mutilated and strangled to death. Evidence collected at the time was analyzed through new DNA techniques in 2012.
Family and friends told Rebecca to accept the accusations about her husband. She refused. She told her story to news agencies across the country, and was featured in PEOPLE and on People Magazine Investigates on Investigation Discovery.
Brown’s defenders argued that sloppy crime lab conditions may have caused a mix-up, and pointed to other suspects — including Ronald Tatro, a Vietnam veteran who’d served time for the abduction and sexual assault of a woman and died in 2011.
Cross-contamination from lax lab practices, and the fact that lab employees used their own blood and semen for control testing, seemed to be the reasonable explanation. The original autopsy, according to records, found no semen in the vaginal swab taken from the victim and no signs of rape.