Forensic Scientist Henry Chang-Yu Lee

Henry Lee How many scientists can claim the simultaneous titles of state police commissioner, chief state fire marshal, chief building inspector, director of the state forensic laboratory, and university professor? Probably a safe answer is only one, Connecticut's Henry Lee. The development of the field of forensic sciences, the application of science in solving legal issues, parallels Lee's career. As a young man, Lee was a police captain in the Taipei Police Department in Taiwan. There,

By | April 3, 2000


Henry Lee
How many scientists can claim the simultaneous titles of state police commissioner, chief state fire marshal, chief building inspector, director of the state forensic laboratory, and university professor? Probably a safe answer is only one, Connecticut's Henry Lee.

The development of the field of forensic sciences, the application of science in solving legal issues, parallels Lee's career. As a young man, Lee was a police captain in the Taipei Police Department in Taiwan. There, he notes, "Many cases ... we solved by interrogation and confession. Many cases remained unsolved" due to lack of scientific methods.

When Lee moved to the United States in 1965, he enrolled at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, following that with graduate work at New York University (NYU) Medical Center, where he studied under Sylvia Lee-Huang and Nobelist in physiology or medicine Severo Ochoa. Lee completed his Ph.D. in human genetics and molecular biology in 1975. "At that time, it was pretty new; there was no such field as forensic science," Lee remarks. Forensics, he notes, traditionally included only fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, ballistics, and autopsy.

After graduating from NYU, Lee took a position at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, where, not forgetting his interest in police work, he established a forensic sciences program, in which he is still a professor. And during that time, forensic sciences began to flower.

Nowadays, "every branch of science has some influence in forensic science," Lee says. The field now includes subspecialties from molecular genetics and analytical chemistry to computer imaging. These changes are reflected in the pages of the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the publication of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Lee, who's on the journal's editorial board, says, "You can see over the years that our field has made tremendous advances."

And as forensics has flourished, Lee has been able to combine his skills in criminal investigation with his experience as a scientist. "I can use my scientific knowledge to apply to my police work," he tells The Scientist, while lamenting that "unfortunately, most police officers lack scientific background," and "a lot of good scientists who enter the forensic field lack experience in criminal investigation."

Lee proudly notes that his team--a term he insists on, saying, "We work together"--has made contributions to many of the evolving areas of forensic sciences. The team discovered a new method to extract DNA from evidentiary samples, a technique to enhance bloody fingerprints, images and procedures for estimating the volume of blood found at a crime scene, and a method to develop footprints. The latter method, Lee notes in public speeches, revealed a set of shoeprints at the Nicole Simpson homicide crime scene that were not made by the Bruno Magli shoes that the prosecution claimed O.J. Simpson was wearing at the time of his ex-wife's death.

Some Recent Papers Coauthored by Henry Lee

C. Ladd et al., "A systematic analysis of secondary DNA transfer," Journal of Forensic Sciences, 44:1270-2, 1999.

H.C. Lee et al., "Forensic applications of DNA typing, collection and preservation of DNA evidence," American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology, 19:10-18, 1998.

But Lee's team has also worked on methods that enhance the role of biochemistry in forensics: blood group typing, typing of isoenzymes in human bone, and DNA profiling. Lee notes that now if police find a bloody fingerprint at a crime scene, the forensics lab can develop the print and link it to a suspect, and then use DNA analysis of the blood to link the print to the victim. Thus, one piece of evidence can solve the case. He explains that in a recent homicide case in Boston, the only evidence at the crime scene was a toothpick. Testing the DNA from cells left on the toothpick in a method called short tandem repeat (STR), which needs only small amounts of DNA, forensic scientists were able to link the toothpick to a suspect.

Lee's work further involves scientific methods in criminal investigations. His team uses a method he calls "advanced reconstruction" to "try to use scientific logic to solve this case." The questions these methods address are "how it happened, when and where it happened, who is responsible, and ... what is the sequence of events," explains Lee. He is, he says, bridging the fields of law enforcement and science.

International Renown

Lee's methods have brought him international renown in cases bannered across the front pages of the world's newspapers: the O.J. Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey case, the John F. Kennedy assassination, Kenneth Starr's inquiry into the death of Vincent Foster, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and the Michael Skakel murder case, to name a few. He's helped identify bodies from mass graves in Bosnia and he's helped train police officers from Taiwan and China. Lee is as celebrated in Chinese and Chinese-language newspapers as he is in English-language ones.

His public lectures are uproariously funny, and Lee is a sought-after public speaker; his dinner speeches are booked up to 2003. And his talks often stress that despite his current accolades, his path was not that easy.

He told The Scientist that when he came to the United States, he had $50 in his pocket. He worked full time at NYU Medical Center, teaching kung fu and working as a waiter in his spare time. (His long workdays have continued; 20-hour workdays are considered normal for him.)

Sometimes people discouraged him. He initially was told that he was a good policeman, but would never become a scientist. When he became a scientist, he says, "I was told I was a good scientist and would never become a professor because I speak with a foreign accent." But he became a full professor at the University of New Haven after three years. And his accent has not put a crimp in his teaching and lecturing. He now teaches at 11 universities, law schools, and medical schools. His biographical sketch notes that Lee "has conducted and instructed over 800 workshops/seminars."

Despite early difficulties, he persevered, working harder than everyone and maintaining high ethical standards. His colleagues say he is always helping people, he is fair, and he likes to help junior people in the field and even new immigrants to the United States. "It's our job to help others," he says. He isn't seeking the scientific limelight: Members of his team coauthor papers and books with him.

In the nearly two years since his appointment as Connecticut's commissioner of public safety, he has maintained his emphasis on forensics. He merged the state police toxicology lab with the forensics lab, developed a forensic center, and implemented a new computer crime lab as well as the third generation of DNA testing methods. His latest project is "teleforensics," linking forensic examiners via telecommunications.

And as head of the department, Lee says, "Now I'm the boss. They don't say, 'You have an accent.'" He says if somebody does not understand his instructions, that "is their problem, not mine."

Myrna E. Watanabe is a freelance science writer in Patterson, N.Y

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