Criminalist Lee's Credibility Challenged
Friday, May 25, 2007; 12:47 PM
LOS ANGELES -- Twelve years ago, forensic scientist Henry Lee mesmerized jurors with his analysis of scientific evidence in O.J. Simpson's murder trial. Holding up a photo of what he said was a shoe print he declared ominously: "Something's wrong."
Despite challenges from others, it was a statement simple and accessible enough to help turn the tide in Simpson's case and was emblematic of the style that has made Lee a nationally renowned expert. He made forensic evidence understandable before television's "CSI" shows transformed it into a pop culture subject.
Lee often carries a large magnifying glass to the witness stand, casting himself in the role of a modern day Sherlock Holmes. He also uses props to present a show-and-tell explanation that intrigues jurors.
But his extraordinary reputation is now under attack. The judge in Phil Spector's murder trial has ruled that Lee removed something from the scene where actress Lana Clarkson was shot and withheld it from the prosecution.
"Dr. Lee has a lot to lose here," said Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler, who cast doubt on the expert's credibility. The judge had heard testimony from several witnesses over a period of weeks on the mystery of a missing piece of fingernail at the crime scene.
The judge concluded that only one, former Spector lawyer Sara Caplan, had told the complete truth. She said she saw Lee pick up something and place it in a vial.
"I find the following," Fidler said. "Dr. Lee did recover an item. It is flat, white, with rough edges. I cannot say if it is a fingernail. It has never been presented to the prosecution."
Lee denied during a hearing last week that he found such an item. He said his only findings were some white threads and a piece of bloodstained carpet.
The prosecution contends the item Lee withheld was a piece of fingernail with the trace of a passing bullet that would show Clarkson resisted having a gun placed in her mouth. Her right thumb was missing a piece of acrylic fingernail after her death.
During the hearing with jurors absent, Lee displayed his showmanship on the witness stand, complimenting prosecutor Alan Jackson on his good looks and producing cotton swabs and sticky notes he said he used to pick up and package evidence.
He became testy when challenged and said he felt his reputation was being damaged by the prosecution's insinuations.
The session had been delayed because Lee had to fly in from Taiwan where he was consulting on a case. By the time the judge ruled Wednesday, Lee was traveling in Italy and could not be reached for comment.