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.
Missing fingernail tip a key clue?
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 Chinese-born Lee, 69, whose parents fled to Taiwan when he was 6, still speaks with a heavy Chinese accent.
Lee, the retired director of the Connecticut State Forensics Science Laboratory, has conducted investigations for defense attorneys and prosecutors.
His resume is a who's who of celebrity cases, including Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, Kobe Bryant, JonBenet Ramsey, Scott Peterson, Chandra Levy, Michael Skakel, Vincent Foster and the Branch Davidian compound fire. He conducted a crime-scene investigation in Taipei after the election-eve shooting of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.
'Benign and narrow ruling'
He has written books on famous cases, had a Court TV show on trace evidence and teaches at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, which trains crime lab experts.
University of Southern California Law professor Jean Rosenbluth, who has been attending Spector's trial, noted the judge did not sanction Lee and issued what she called a "benign and narrow ruling." But she said it could smudge his career.
"Any time he takes the stand now he can be impeached with a finding by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that he failed to turn over evidence," Rosenbluth said. "It's certainly not helpful."
But the defense attorneys who hired him to testify for Spector seemed unfazed by the ruling.
"Dr. Lee is a very credible witness," attorney Christopher Plourd said. "He didn't do anything wrong. Let the jury consider his credibility."
Plourd, who is handling scientific evidence, said: "We think it's an act of despair by the prosecutors because they don't like what the science shows. So they go after the scientist."
Prosecutors promised to call back all the witnesses who testified without the jury present in order to impeach Lee as a witness. The trial was to continue Tuesday.
Although the substance of Lee's anticipated testimony is not known, he will most likely interpret trace evidence including blood spatter patterns to support the defense claim that Clarkson killed herself in Spector's home.
Clarkson, 40, best known for the 1985 cult film "Barbarian Queen," was working as a nightclub hostess when she met Spector, 67, in the early hours of Feb. 3, 2003, and agreed to go to his suburban mansion.
Spector revolutionized pop music in the 1960s and '70s with his "Wall of Sound" recording style.