Henry C. Lee came to America in 1965 with his wife, a few English phrases, and $50. Today, he is one of the world’s foremost forensic scientists.
Lee, often dubbed the “king of the crime scene,” spoke of his work — which includes testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial and an analysis of former President Bill Clinton’s semen from Monica Lewinsky’s dress — to over 50 students at a Master’s Tea Tuesday, sponsored by Pierson College and the Asian American Students’ Association.
Arguing that both the prosecution and the defense ignored important evidence such as shoe prints and bloody fingerprints, Lee figured prominently in the Simpson trial. Lee said if the detectives who arrived on the scene first had not washed away the evidence, the blood could have been matched to Simpson immediately and the case would have been solved, avoiding a $19 million trial.
“The crime scene was destroyed from day one,” Lee said. “Something was wrong.”
Lee made $150,000 from the Simpson trial and invested the money in new equipment at the University of New Haven — his home institution since 1975 — and in a scholarship fund for forensic science students, he said.
But his expertise extends beyond murder scenes. Lee was a special guest at the White House a few years ago. Lee was called in to test the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s now infamous blue dress.
Spurring a round of applause, Lee joked that unlike a standard double helix, Clinton’s DNA resembled an undone zipper. Newspaper cartoonists around the country caught on, drawing Lee sneaking around the Oval Office with a magnifying glass.
“Once you’ve become a cartoon character, you know you’ve made it,” Lee said.
Lee has worked with law enforcement agencies to solve more than 6,000 cases in many countries, but Yalies might remember him in particular from his work in the still-unsolved murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99. In early December 1998, Jovin was found on the corner of East Rock Avenue and Edgehill Road with multiple stab wounds in her back and neck.
New Haven Police, hoping to bring the murder case to a close, asked Lee within a month of the murder to examine the physical evidence. Lee performed a microscopic examination of the crime scene evidence to see if it revealed any trace of the attacker’s skin, hair fibers, or body fluids, but his findings were inconclusive. Lee did not speak about the Jovin case during the tea.
After earning two bachelor’s degrees — one in political science and one in forensic science — and a master’s degree and doctorate in biochemistry, Lee was offered university jobs in California and Michigan but chose a position at the University of New Haven instead. When he set up office in New Haven in 1975, the university didn’t have a forensic science program — and there were only two students interested in forensic science.
One of Lee’s colleagues at the time said, “Henry, this is not the place. No funding, no labs, no money.”
Lee started to build a reputation and officials in Hartford caught on. Then-governor of Connecticut Ella Grasso asked Lee to serve as the state’s first “Chief Criminalist,” Lee said. Lee has since been promoted to Chief Emeritus for the Connecticut Division of Scientific Services.
A frequent guest on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Lee has become a celebrity of sorts.
“When the O.J. trial was on, CNN was on my television 24-7,” Margaret Olszewski ’05 said. “My mother was in love with Dr. Lee and I read his book. It’s exciting that he is speaking in our own backyard.”