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Monday, May 9, 2016

Dr. Henry Lee: The Celebrity Forensic Scientist

     Dr. Henry Lee has come as close to becoming a household name as any forensic scientist in U.S. history. He has achieved fame in a profession whose practitioners generally operate behind the scenes. In the criminal justice field, it's usually the defense attorneys who get the headlines, and in forensic science, it's often forensic pathologists like Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Cyril Wecht.

     In the 1930s, a pair of criminalists in the Seattle area, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, achieved celebrity status by solving a number of celebrated murder cases. Clark Sellers, a handwriting expert from Los Angeles, made headlines with his testimony at the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in Flemington, New Jersey. In the 1960s, Dr. Paul Kirk, a forensic chemist from Berkeley, California became something of a celebrity. The peak of his notoriety came in 1995 when he analyzed crime scene blood-spatter patterns for attorney F. Lee Bailey in the infamous Dr. Sam Shepard murder case near Cleveland, Ohio.

     Dr. Henry Lee, because he rose to fame in the era of true crime television, has enjoyed a level of celebrity more intense and intimate than his well-known predecessors. He has made hundreds of television appearances, and hosted a show on Court TV called Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee. Dr. Lee's personality, demeanor, and life story have helped make him a bigger-than-life character. Like sports stars and major film and television actors, he tends to be vain and dramatic. On the witness stand, he informs jurors and, as a charismatic courtroom showman, entertains them. When Dr. Lee testifies for the prosecution, he's the defense attorney's worst nightmare. When he's appearing on behalf of the defense, it's not good news for the prosecutor. In either case, the media loves it, and so do the jurors.

     Dr. Henry Chang-Yu Lee was born in Rugao City, China on November 22, 1938. When Henry was four, the Chinese communists murdered his father. Two years later, his family fled to Taiwan to avoid the communist revolution. After graduating from the Taiwan Central Police College in 1960 with a degree in police science, Henry jointed the Taipei Police Department. Six years later, after rising to the rank of captain, he came to the United States where, in 1972, he graduated from New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a bachelor of science degree in science. In 1974, he earned a master's degree in biochemistry from New York University. A year later, he was awarded a Ph.D in biochemistry.

     In 1979, Dr. Lee became the director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Laboratory where he also held the title of chief criminalist. Following his retirement from the lab in 2000, Dr. Lee began teaching at the University of New Haven where he founded the Henry C. Lee Forensic Institute. According to his resume, Dr. Lee has been awarded several honorary degrees, written more than 20 books (most with co-authors), published numerous scientific articles, given hundreds of speeches, investigated 4,000 homicide cases (not possible), and consulted with more than 300 law enforcement agencies.

The Wood Chipper Case

     Dr. Lee vaulted onto the national stage in 1986 when an airline pilot named Richard Crafts went on trial in Connecticut for murdering his wife, Halle. Having incurred her husband's wrath by announcing her plans to divorce him, Halle Crafts had covertly audio-taped his threats to to kill her. Perhaps even more incriminating, Richard Crafts was seen by a motorist, on the night of Halle's disappearance, operating a commercial-grade wood chipper in the midst of a blizzard along the bank of the Housatonic River. The audio-tape and the wood chipper sighting led the police to suspect Crafts of murdering his wife. But investigators had a serious problem: they didn't have a corpse. Faced with one of those maddening cases of a good suspect, but no physical evidence, the homicide detectives called on Dr. Lee

     In the couple's bedroom, Dr. Lee found traces of the victim's blood. When he examined a chainsaw that had been in the suspect's possession, Dr. Lee discovered hair follicles, traces of blood, and tissue that he identified as the victim's. In the rented wood chipper, Lee recovered the same, and at the spot where Richard Crafts had been seen operating the equipment, Dr. Lee found fragments of the victim's teeth and bones, along with follicles of her hair. It wasn't much, but it was enough to establish that Halle Crafts had been murdered. From this evidence, Dr. Lee was able to reconstruct the crime, theorizing that the defendant had bludgeoned his wife to death in their bedroom, frozen her body in a home freezer, cut her into pieces with the chainsaw, then shoved the body parts into the wood chipper which sprayed her remains into the river.

     The Crafts trial jury, obviously impressed with Dr. Lee and his evidence, found the defendant guilty of first degree murder. A few years later, while serving his life sentence, Richard Crafts confessed to murdering his wife. Featuring blood and gore, an attractive victim, a suburban killer, a dramatic trial, and scientific investigation in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, the wood chipper case turned Dr. Henry Lee into a celebrity forensic scientist.

William Kennedy Smith Case

     Five years after his famous Crafts murder trial testimony, Dr. Lee took the stand on behalf of a defendant named William Kennedy Smith who was on trail for an alleged 1991 date rape that dominated the news because of the Kennedy family connection. According to the accused, following a night of drinking in Palm Beach, Florida with his accuser, the two had engaged in consensual sex on the lawn of the Kennedy family estate. Dr. Lee, to help prove that the defendant's partner had consented to sex, testified that he had found no grass stains on the woman's pantyhose, evidence one would expect to find had there been a struggle. To illustrate this point, Dr. Lee produced a grass-stained handkerchief he had rubbed against the grass in his own yard. The jury found William Kennedy Smith not guilty.

     Dr. Lee's testimony in the Kennedy case drew criticism from John Hicks, the director of the FBI Laboratory, who called it "outrageous." Hicks characterized Dr. Lee's handkerchief experiment as unscientific, and labeled the conclusions drawn from it speculative. The crime lab director pointed out that the handkerchief was not made of the same fabric as the pantyhose, and the conditions that had created the handkerchief stains did not necessarily replicate the environment at the alleged crime site. Criticism of this type--that Dr. Lee's testimony is more theater than science--has followed him throughout his career.

The O. J. Simpson Case

     Dr. Lee's testimony on behalf of O. J. Simpson in 1995 did not endear him to many of his forensic science colleagues. In general, Dr. Lee's testimony in that case helped the Simpson defense in five ways. It depicted Los Angeles police detectives and crime scene technicians as incompetent; it suggested that blood evidence had been contaminated; it supported the theory that evidence against the defendant had been planted; it pushed the time of the crime forward 45 minutes which accommodated Simpson's alibi; and it laid the groundwork for the theory than Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman had been murdered by more than one person.

     On the last point, Dr. Lee's testimony contradicted the testimony of the FBI's renowned footwear identification expert, William Bodziak. Dr. Lee identified a bloody stain on an envelope and scrap of paper found in Nicole Simpson's house as a shoe print that didn't match the footwear--the Bruno Magli Italian designer shoes--prosecutors believed the defendant was wearing when he committed the murders. Mr. Bodziak testified that this bloody print had not been made by a shoe at all. Douglas Deedrich, also from the FBI Crime Lab, testified that the bloody pattern was in fact a fabric print.

     At the Simpson trial, Dr. Lee also raised the possibility that a bloodstain on Ronald Goldman's blue jeans had been made by a shoe that was not a Bruno Magli. On cross-examination, when pressed about this blood print identification, Dr. Lee said that if these patterns were footwear marks, they were not made by the Bruno Magli brand.

     Critics of Dr. Lee's testimony in the O. J. Simpson case called it an example of "blowing smoke"--a term referring to the giving of vague defense testimony intended to muddy the water in an effort to create reasonable doubt.

     Since his testimony in the O. J. Simpson case, Dr. Lee was involved in dozens of celebrated cases that included the JonBenet Ramsey murder, the Scott Peterson case, and the Phil Spector murder case where he was accused of removing a piece of crime scene evidence that might have incriminated the defendant.

     Dr. Lee's participation at various levels in so many cases involving such a variety of evidence and analysis is unusual for a forensic scientist. In the field, he is almost a one-of-a-kind practitioner. At the core of his expertise, he is a forensic serologist, one who examines crime scene biological stains to determine their identify and origin. As a crime scene reconstruction expert, one who determines what happened at the crime site by taking into consideration all of the physical clues, Dr. Lee is also a blood-spatter analyst. As one who studies physical evidence to figure out, after the fact, what occurred at the scene of the crime, Dr. Lee analyzes all kinds of physical evidence, including hair follicles, fibers, bite marks, bone fragments, brain matter, tissue, gunshot powder residue, soil, dust, pollen, and other forms of trace evidence.

     Dr. Lee also studies latent footwear and fingerprint patterns, and analyzes bullet trajectories. He's a generalist in a field of narrowly defined specialists. This has its appeal, and explains why he has been able to insert himself in so many cases. It may also be his weakness, because his expertise and knowledge, over all this forensic territory, is thin. One man can only know so much. Because science and ego are a bad mix, forensic science is best conducted by behind-the-scenes people who are not worried about living up to their press clippings.



       

2 comments:

  1. He's an asshole who blew the Oj Simpson case.

    ReplyDelete