“I always go in with an open mind… I don’t even believe what the police tell me. They always try to tell you a story. I let the evidence speak for itself; otherwise, you can overlook exculpatory evidence.”
(Quote Dr. Henry C. Lee – September 2010)
Crime based TV shows and crime scene investigation dramas are so engrained into our collective psyches these days, that we accept them as reality. But in truth, they represent a severe breach with reality, a distortion of time that is totally nonsensical.
We are well aware from listening to the real life commentaries of Susan Murphy Milano, Denny Griffin and Vito Collucci of Crime-Wire, that actual crime cases are not so neat and tidy. Crime is not investigated one case at a time; a murder trial is not solved in an hour as portrayed on Law and Order. Real hysterical, but remorseful defendants do not abruptly stand and confess at the end of the trial, as they did on episodes of “Perry Mason”. (Ahhh…. childhood memories. Even then I was fascinated by the motivations of crime). And, heaven help us, DNA samples are very, very seldom sent for immediate processing after the request rolls off a police officer’s lips…..
So, why do we expect such unrealistic standards in real life? Some may say, TV and movie land has brainwashed us and heightened our expectations beyond all reasonableness. My theory is that it has something to do with the rapid growth in forensic science and technology combined with the lengthy examination and processing time required for all such tests. These realities, can never match with the relatively limited attention spans of the average viewer.
Therefore the entertainment industry is compelled to speed it up, keep it exciting, “Presto Chango”- here are your results on a silver platter. The TV audience barely has enough time to go into the kitchen and get a snack before the DNA results are ready! Who cares if a few corners are cut in the name of flash and gimmicks – It’s TV. All of the survivors of crime care, as well as the crime victims to be – that’s who! False expectations are dangerous!
Who is there to dispel the myths of crime as entertainment? Enter, center stage, the person, the legend of Dr. Henry C. Lee, Criminologist. With his seemingly unassuming demeanor and his no-nonsense way of going about his work, he is the poster boy for crime busting, public safety and forensic science. He is certainly a Connecticut celebrity and a world renowned expert.
Dr. Lee was born in China (the same day as the assassination date of JFK), in 1938 and grew up in Taiwan, beginning a career as a police officer and achieving the role of Captain before travelling to the U.S; where he earned a B.S. degree in Forensic Science in 1972 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from NYU. Dr. Lee is Chief Emeritus of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory.
He is fond of telling the story of his childhood aspirations by saying,
“I wanted to be a basketball star. I went to talk to my coach and he said, ‘You grow two feet and then come see me.’ I realized it was an impossible dream.”
Over the years, he has authored hundreds of articles, 25 textbooks and a compilation of real crime cases using crime scene analysis, DNA analysis, fingerprinting methods etc. Dr. Lee is perhaps the world’s most famous expert in blood spatter pattern and analysis.
His repertoire of high profile cases are household names including the notorious “Wood Chipper murder” of Hellie Crafts in Connecticut, Jon Benet Ramsey, Phil Spector, OJ Simpson, Scott Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, Michael Peterson and the re-investigation of President John F. Kennedy to name only a handful.
This writer has had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Lee lecture at a number of crime victim conferences. He is modest when speaking of his exhaustive achievements, possesses a good sense of humor and never fails to be thought provoking. His standard refrain when introducing a case, articulated in his heavy Taiwanese dialect typically is “Some sing wrong here” for “Something’s wrong here.” (No disrespect meant whatsoever…you have to listen carefully, that’s all). Dr. Lee skillfully guides the listener about the crime scene, the basic principles of forensics and evidence gathering as well as the overall puzzle presented. You instinctively know that he will present many more questions than answers….. Very rarely is a case a “slam dunk.” The evidence may point in a particular direction or hypothesis or may prove conclusively that “no one else could have done it….” Or, more likely not provide enough evidence and remain unsolved for extended periods …even years.
With 40 years of experience and offering assistance to law enforcement with 6,000 cases to date, Dr. Lee has developed his own style of teaching. He doesn’t hesitate to offer “teaching moments” and simulates elements of the crime. Whether using red ink or ketchup, Dr. Lee gets into his work!
(A good example of this is featured in the six hour docu-drama “The Staircase,” featuring the Michael Peterson case.)
Dr. Lee has also dabbled in non-fiction crime books. One that has gotten much publicity was with a co-author Dr. Jerry Labriola, a professor of Medicine at the University of Connecticut. This book is entitled, “Famous Crimes Revisited: From Sacco-Vanzetti to O. J. Simpson.” Dr. Labriola creates the fictional character of “Sam Constant, ”a travelling companion who expresses the sentiment of the time, while Dr. Lee intersperses modern-day comments (in bold print) using the latest scientific knowledge. This is a unique concept for sure, but a confusing read and not much actual participation from Dr. Lee. Critics have been luke-warm on this offering.
Book review aside, it may be that Dr. Henry Lee, at 73, still has too many important things on his plate to indulge in such pursuits. In a local article September, 2010, he stated, “I’ve retired four times and still work a 16 hour day. I have the energy of a 20 year old.”
It is this drive and workaholic nature that has launched a pre-eminent mind to ever increasing heights. Dr. Lee joined the faculty of the University of New Haven in 1975. UNH retains the reputation as one of the best, leading the pack in criminal justice and forensic academic programs.
The 14 million dollar Henry C. Lee Institute opened on October 15, 2010 and specializes in interdisciplinary research, training, testing case consulting and education in the field of forensic science. A first hand account that appeared in a recent Hartford Courant article described the personal experience as follows:
First you touch a handprint on a wall that launches a video of Lee explaining that your fingerprints will now be checked with a database. Then the police sirens wail and you hear officers barking orders over a scanner.
On your left is a virtual crime scene laboratory where images and pertinent evidence from Connecticut’s notorious “wood-chipper” murder case are projected on the walls. Farther in are exhibits showing how various types of light reveal bloodstains on a screwdriver; a chance to match bullets; and a look at the differences between male and female skeletal remains.
Around a corner is a room where a body —- a dummy —- lies in a recliner, apparently strangled, with evidence marked by numbers around the room; a bottle of beer to his left, a powder that looks like cocaine on a coffee table, a bureau with clothes spilling out.
There are high-tech classrooms and advanced technologies for research and for consultations with police.
“The case consultation takes advantage of Dr. Lee’s expertise and his ability to see things when no one else can, and the expertise of others members of the department,” said grant coordinator, Elaine Pagliaro. She said the institute won’t duplicate services in the community, but will enhance services, in some cases by providing technology that isn’t readily available.
For example, she said, the institute will be buying an infrared camera to examine human remains. “You wouldn’t use an infrared camera a lot and it’s a relatively expensive piece of equipment,” she said.
The institute also has a cutting edge forensic crisis command center where UNH experts can connect by satellite with police and other governmental agencies to examine evidence that is beamed to them — thus providing help as if they were physically at the crime scene.
Tim Palmbach, executive director of the institute, said the goal is also to show the public that forensic science “is not necessarily what they’ve come to know and believe after watching ‘CSI.’ “
The missions of the institute, which officially opened its new building last week, include educating the public and students and training police, lawyers and investigators in the latest forensic practices.
|HC Lee Institute • University of New Haven • 300 Boston Post Rd • West Haven, CT 06516 • (203) 932-7460|