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Forensic Scientist Henry Lee Speaks at Eastern

Published on February 12, 2015

Forensic Scientist Henry Lee Speaks at Eastern

Pioneering and world-renowned forensic scientist Henry Lee visited Eastern Connecticut State University on Feb. 10 to talk about lessons he has learned from investigating high profile cases. Lee’s visit was part of Eastern’s Arts and Lecture Series, and drew a capacity crowd in the Betty R. Tipton Room of the Student Center. With unexpected humor, Lee discussed his childhood, career and philosophy on life.

“To make impossible become possible” — these words, the underlying mantra to Lee’s talk, have motivated him to success. “The first thing I learned in this country was how to open the door,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you do, what your profession is — work hard.” Over the past 50 years, Lee has helped solve more than 8,000 cases and worked with law enforcement agencies from 46 countries. Through his travels, four truths have helped guide him: the power of knowledge, the importance of positive thinking, the value of self-reliance and the benefits of teamwork.

Born in 1938 to an affluent family in China, Lee’s life was suddenly changed when his mother and 13 siblings fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. His father, who was traveling separately, perished when the passenger ship he was on sank. Lee was six years old, and his mother had to raise all 13 children on her own. “I respect and fear my mother more than anyone,” he fondly said. She passed away a few years ago at the age of 106.  Growing up in Taiwan, fatherless, with no motivation to attend university, Lee went to police school, mostly because it was one of the few opportunities in the area. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a cop,” but by the age of 25, Lee attained the rank of captain at the Taipei Police Department — the youngest person in Taiwanese history to do so.


As investigation techniques were rudimentary back then, and the field of forensic science not yet developed, Lee said police work was very basic. He quickly realized a lot of innocent people were being punished because of this. “Police investigation should be totally objective, transparent and involve the community,” he said.

To pursue new opportunities, Lee and his wife, Margaret, moved to the United States in 1965 with only $15 between them. “When I came to this country, I didn’t speak any English. After 50 years, I still don’t speak English,” Lee said, poking fun at his thick Chinese accent.

After nearly 10 years of studying and working odd jobs, including bussing tables in the evenings and instructing kung fu on the weekends, Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in forensic science in 1972 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1975. Since then, he has been given 20 honorary doctorate degrees and received special training from the FBI Academy and other organizations.

Lee’s career quickly gathered momentum, and so did his celebrity. Over the years, he has received countless awards and recognitions; written more than 40 books; and been featured in movies, TV shows and talk shows around the world. Lee even has his own TV show, “Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee,” which is shown on the network TruTV. The amount of attention he has garnered is overwhelming. Now in his late 70s, Lee declines invitations to speak on talk shows or attend red carpet events, much preferring the settings of schools and colleges where he can speak with young people. “Us old people are over the hill. Young people are the future,” Lee said.

His testimony figured prominently in the trials of O.J. Simpson, Jayson Williams, William Kennedy Smith and the “Wood Chipper” murderer. Lee has assisted in the investigations of other famous crimes, such as the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey; the suicide of White House Counsel Vincent Foster; the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart; the death of Chandra Levy; the reinvestigation of the Kennedy assassination; and the Casey Anthony case. Lee made the point that media attention is not all that makes a case “high profile.” “All cases are high profile, even the ones that happen in small towns to regular people and families. They are all just as important.”


The four primary lessons he has learned from these cases and others are: preserve the evidence; do not get emotionally involved; just because someone’s DNA is present does not mean they are guilty; and always keep an open mind, because there are two sides to every story.

Lee also spent some time comparing the reality of forensic investigation to that of TV shows such as CSI. “In CSI, the case is solved at the end of the episode,” but in reality cases may take years to close, while others go unsolved. “In CSI, everyone gets a hug and kiss at the end of the episode. I’ve solved many cases, and never got a hug or kiss,” Lee said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

With more words of wisdom, Lee said, “Life is going to have ups and downs. When highs come, remember not to get too cocky, and when valleys come, don’t get too depressed.” Currently, Lee is the director of Forensic Research and Training Center and distinguished chair professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven.  He was the chief emeritus for the Connecticut State Police from 2000 to 2010, the commissioner of Public Safety for the State of Connecticut from 1998 to 2000, and served as Connecticut’s chief criminalist and director of the State Police Forensic Laboratory from 1978 to 2000. Lee serves as an advisor/consultant for more than 80 law enforcement agencies around the world. In 2013, he was appointed as chief forensic advisor for the New Haven Police Department and expert advisor for China’s National Chief Prosecutor’s Office. Lee and his wife have been married for 53 years and have two grown children and three grandchildren.

Written by Michael Rouleau