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A burnished image marred

Times Staff Writer

In the all-out warfare of celebrity trials, forensic scientist Henry C. Lee is the nuclear weapon. Prosecutors and defense lawyers scramble to hire him in the hours after a high-profile arrest -- not only to bolster their cases but also to keep him from joining the other side.

Lee has worked on the biggest celebrity cases of the last two decades: O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, Kobe Bryant, JonBenet Ramsey, Scott Peterson, Chandra Levy, Michael Skakel. His work has brought him his own fame. He has had his own cable TV show, courtrooms fill with spectators when he shows up for a trial, and he is hounded for autographs in public.

So when Lana Clarkson, a 40-year-old actress, was found shot to death Feb. 3, 2003, in music producer Phil Spector’s home, attorney Robert Shapiro immediately flew in Lee from his Connecticut home. The lawyer got Lee into Spector’s Alhambra mansion by the next evening to begin the scientific hunt for evidence to prove Spector innocent -- or at least produce doubt of his guilt in jurors’ minds.

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But in a startling blow to Lee’s illustrious career, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler said he already has reasonable doubt -- about Lee’s credibility.

Fidler ruled last month that prosecutors could present testimony that Lee took evidence from the crime scene and kept it from prosecutors.

The judge said testimony about what was taken was inconclusive, but prosecutors claimed that it was a piece of Clarkson’s acrylic nail that was blown off when she held her hand in front of her face to try to defend herself against the bullet that killed her. That could show that, contrary to the contention of Spector’s lawyers, she did not kill herself.

Lee, when vigorously denying that he improperly took anything from the crime scene, captured the magnitude of the allegation. “I think my reputation [is] severely damaged,” he said.

Fidler’s ruling could weaken Lee’s testimony, although defense attorneys say they plan to stick with him. An expert on analyzing the patterns of bloodstains, Lee is expected to testify that the size and number of blood spots on Spector’s jacket show he was standing too far from Clarkson to have shot her.

The judge’s decision could also damage Lee beyond the Spector case. Future courtroom opponents might cite the ruling to chip at Lee’s stature; prosecutors and defense attorneys might even decide not to hire him at all.

Lee has not spoken to reporters about Fidler’s ruling. His office said he is out of the country on a lecture tour until Monday, and his assistant at the Connecticut state forensics lab declined to forward phone or e-mail messages to him or to say whether he checks messages when traveling.

Six days after The Times asked that an e-mail containing questions for this story be forwarded to Lee, his office sent a statement in reply. The statement did not answer The Times’ questions about his work as a forensic scientist but repeated his denial that he withheld evidence from Spector’s house.

He called the fingernail allegation “a tactic to kill the messenger before the message is delivered.”

Lee’s setback occurred in the same downtown Los Angeles courthouse where, 12 years ago, he became a celebrity in his own right with his televised testimony in O.J. Simpson’s trial. Jurors later cited Lee as a key factor in their acquittal of the former football star in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Lee had questioned the LAPD’s handling of blood evidence, suggesting that it could have been tampered with.

“Something’s wrong,” Lee famously said of the blood samples, leading the defense to suggest that officers could have planted Simpson’s blood at the crime scene to frame him.

At the time, Lee was the chief criminalist for the state of Connecticut, earning a salary of $80,000 a year. He donated his fees from the Simpson case to nonprofit groups, as he has done routinely as an expert witness. By giving his fees away and saying he will do so on the witness stand, Lee defuses criticism that he is a hired gun beholden to those paying him.

He built his reputation in Connecticut by helping to solve tough cases, such as a murder in which the victim’s body was missing. Digging through a snow-covered riverbank, Lee found less than an ounce of human remains and proved they were those of a missing flight attendant whose husband had recently bought a wood chipper. The husband was convicted in 1985.

Lee has testified on the significance of bloodstains, bullet paths, footprints, fingernails and hairs.

The 1991 William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Palm Beach, Fla., was Lee’s first celebrity case. He testified that the accuser’s clothing did not have grass stains or tears consistent with a struggle. Smith was acquitted.

Now retired from his government posts, Lee reaps handsome dividends from his fame. It propels sales of his books and lands him lucrative speaking engagements. One speaker’s website lists Lee’s fee as $12,500 a lecture, plus first-class travel for two.

He has given some of his fees to the University of New Haven, where he has been a professor of forensic science. He also receives pay and benefits as a director of the Henry C. Lee Institute on the campus, which offers forensics courses to police and others.

Public records show that in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, Lee received $52,563 in pay and benefits from the institute. University officials said that this was only a portion of his compensation from the school, where he holds the rank of professor, but that they were unable to provide details.

Before the Simpson trial, Lee seldom gave interviews to reporters outside Connecticut. Since then, he has been a frequent television commentator and even had a Court TV show. Nine colleges and universities have awarded him honorary degrees since the Simpson trial, and he has said his speaking engagements have been booked as far as two years in advance.

Born in China and raised in Taiwan, where he was a police captain, Lee has turned a potential liability -- his thickly accented English and immigrant background -- to his benefit. Rather than play down his Chinese identity, he will bring it up on the witness stand. A joke Lee has pulled out consistently in trials since before the Simpson case is to say, when asked to identify a white person, “You all look alike to me.”

Earlier this year, he told a University of New Haven audience that he and his wife arrived in the United States with $50, not speaking the language. “Forty-some years later, we still don’t speak English, but we sure have a lot of money,” he said, pulling a wad of bills out of his pocket to punctuate the joke.

Although his forensic work requires precise statements of facts, Lee’s descriptions of himself verge on hyperbole. He often says he works 17-hour days, seven days a week.

In a 1994 New York Times interview, Lee said he spoke only four words of English -- “Hello” and “How are you?” -- when he arrived in the U.S. But he wrote in a 2000 autobiography published in Taiwan that he worked as a freelance English translator while a police cadet in Taiwan, and as an officer was assigned to the Taipei airport because of his English ability. He also wrote in the book that he passed an English test that Taiwan’s government then required of those hoping to study abroad.

Personal tall tales aside, those who have retained Lee -- who works for both prosecutors and defendants -- say he will not bend his scientific opinions to suit a client.

“A lawyer can move some experts to where the lawyer wants him to be. Henry Lee will say he can’t take that next step,” said Dallas jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn, who worked with Lee on the successful defense of William Kennedy Smith.

Along with his reputation for objectivity, Lee, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, has won over juries with vivid demonstrations, often featuring props. He likes to pull a magnifying glass out of his briefcase in court, subliminally evoking Sherlock Holmes, a Lee favorite. To illustrate blood spatter patterns, he will spit out ketchup, making sure to get some on the suit of the lawyer with whom he is working.

Rather than attack such demonstrations, opposing lawyers often choose to forego tough cross-examinations of Lee. In an Ohio murder case last year, a defense lawyer’s cross-examination of Lee consisted of a few perfunctory questions and a welcome to Toledo.

Lee “has an amazing ability to connect with a jury,” said Hirschhorn, who has also worked against him in trials. “If you try to beat him up or bully him, it will backfire on you in a heartbeat.”

In the Simpson trial, Judge Lance A. Ito directed prosecutor Hank Goldberg not to spend a lot of time cross-examining Lee. “If I was in your shoes,” Ito told Goldberg in a conference without jurors present, “I would ... accentuate the positives of my case, doing it in a very friendly manner given his reputation, and get out.”

Lee’s fame can also tie defense attorneys’ hands. Thomas Maher, a North Carolina defense lawyer, said that if defense attorneys hire Lee, they have to call him as a witness or risk jurors’ suspecting that he backed out because he does not support their position.

Maher called Lee in the 2003 murder trial of Michael Peterson, a prominent Durham novelist accused of beating his wife to death. The courtroom overflowed with spectators who watched Lee spitting ketchup at a white sheet of paper to show how Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, could have coughed up the blood pattern found on the wall of their house.

Lee was unable to work his magic with the jury, which convicted Peterson. Prosecutor Freda Black said jurors told her after the trial that Lee “came across as too self-confident and a little bit silly” and that spitting ketchup seemed to trivialize the woman’s death.

Now, some say they don’t know what to expect from Lee.

J. Christopher Anderson, deputy chief of the criminal division of the Lucas County, Ohio, prosecutor’s office, credits Lee with helping him win a 2006 Toledo murder trial in which a priest was convicted of killing a nun 26 years earlier.

Anderson said that in future trials, however, he would weigh the value of Lee’s testimony against the harm of having him cross-examined about hiding evidence in the Spector trial.

“There’s some baggage now we would have to deal with,” he said.

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peter.hong@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Famous faces among his cases

* Michael Skakel (1991): Lee serves on the Connecticut panel investigating the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. He also testifies in the 2001-02 trial that results in the conviction of Skakel, Ethel Kennedy’s nephew.

* William Kennedy Smith (1991): Lee testifies at the rape trial that the accuser’s clothing did not have grass stains or tears consistent with a struggle, which she said occurred. Smith is acquitted.

* O.J. Simpson (1995): Lee testifies at the murder trial that the LAPD may have mishandled blood evidence. He says there is no way to tell if a bloody footprint at the crime scene was left after the slaying. Simpson is acquitted of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.

* Vincent Foster (1997): Lee is part of a team gathered by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to examine the Clinton White House aide’s death, which is later confirmed to have been a suicide.

* JonBenet Ramsey (1998-99): Lee advises prosecutors in the grand jury inquiry into the 6-year-old’s death. No indictments are issued.

* Chandra Levy (2003): Lee is hired by the Levy family to examine bones of their slain daughter, a former intern for Rep. Gary Condit. Condit is cleared, and no one else is charged in her death.

* Scott Peterson (2003): Lee is hired by defense lawyer Mark Geragos to examine the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn baby. Scott Peterson is later convicted of murder.

* Kobe Bryant (2003): Lee examines evidence for prosecutors. The felony sexual assault charges against Bryant are dropped.


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