By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dr. Henry Lee is the type of man that says “no problem,” though his career revolves around problems. Lee is a forensic scientist that has assisted in more than 6,000 cases and is renowned for his ability to glean clues from the scant pieces of evidence collected from crime scenes. Lee often works with corpses, but says that it is worse when there isn’t a body to examine. Even then, he managed to solve cases.
Last week, the American Academy of Forensic Science held its annual meeting at the Seattle Convention Center.
Lee is a modern day forefather to the study of forensic science. In the past 40 years, Lee has assisted in various cases such as the war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. He has also been involved in high profile cases like O.J. Simpson, Laci Peterson, JonBenét Ramsey, and Elizabeth Smart.
In the beginning of his career, Americans complained that Lee spoke with a Chinese accent. “When I first started, I lacked courage. Years later, I grew a thicker skin, and I said, ‘That’s your problem. If you don’t understand [the] Chinese accent, it’s not my fault. [It’s] your fault. Bush speaks with a Texan accent.’ … I say, if they’re paying $500 to hear me lecture, they’re paying to learn the Chinese accent,” Lee said, jokingly.
In 2004, he was called to investigate the controversial March 19 assassination attempt on the lives of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu. Lee was later commended for not accepting money from Chen.
“We must be responsible to history rather than be responsible to an administration,” Lee said. “When one is responsible to history is when one’s responsibility is great. One has the duty to let the evidence speak for itself.”
Lee also believes in the importance of having an open mind.
During his career, Lee often saw how personal perspective can interfere with one’s understanding of a case. In a case from Hartford, Conn., an Eastern European immigrant was found dead after failing to return home from work. An investigator said to Lee, “She was just looking for trouble.” She left at 6:00 a.m. to walk to work when she could have taken the subway for only 25 cents.
“When I first came to New York in 1965, the subways at the time only cost a nickel,” Lee said to the investigator. “I ran to school and work to save a nickel because at the time, a nickel for me was a lot. … Your criticism of her is wrong because if you want to solve the case, you must think like a victim, [and] think like a suspect in order to crack the case.”
In Lee’s career, some cases remain invariably grounded in Lee’s mind as a personal milestone. Despite having worked with many political figures in his career, Lee still recalls the Penney Serra murder case as one of the more memorable cases in his career. When describing such a case, his voice softens as if in reverence of the details and the death.
It was Lee’s discovery of a faded bloody fingerprint that provided a break in the case. It was a case that, since 1973, had long ran cold. Much to his dismay, the fingerprint remained unidentified for many years.
Serra’s distraught father, John Serra, tried for years to find his daughter’s killer, calling Lee his “last hope.”
John passed away in 1998 before his daughter’s murderer was caught. The source of the fingerprint was identified one morning, 29 years after Penney Serra’s death.
That morning, Lee’s fingerprinting analyst announced that the faded fingerprint turned up on the criminal registry, one that wasn’t yet established during the time the fingerprint was found. There was a man who was charged in a separate assault case. Further DNA analysis, also unavailable at the time of the initial trial, confirmed that the man was the murderer.
“I trust that [John] in the afterlife knows that we helped to solve his daughter’s case.”
For Lee, the Serra case touches on his value for technological advancements in forensic science and the need to achieve justice for victims.
“In Taiwan and China, there are rewards for solving a case. In America, this is nothing to be praised for. This is for a sense of civic responsibility, to help victims or the falsely accused who cannot speak. Who will speak for them?” Lee said. This case is a testament to Lee’s career and that the truth can emerge from even the coldest cases.
“ ‘No problem’ is my mantra,” Lee said. “No problem with everything. You must have this attitude. If you think there is a problem, then there will be a problem. For everything, you must take responsibility.”
With the establishment of the Cold Case Center, Lee has limited his cases to strictly cold cases. Even with the limitation, there are enough cases to last him a lifetime. He also gives lectures in different countries, and there is a new laboratory being built at the Dr. Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science. For a man whose career is all about problems, Lee maintains an uncanny energy. ♦
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.