Forensic scientist Henry C. Lee is a Connecticut icon — not only for his long service as the head of the state police crime lab, and not only because the Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven bears his name, but also because of his involvement in high-profile national crime cases including the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial and the 1996 slaying in Colorado of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey.
But lately some of Lee’s work has come into question and he has found it necessary to defend his reputation. Whatever effect these specific questions may have on Lee, we might want to go a bit further and look for better ways to present highly technical testimony in court.
Lawyers recently questioned the accuracy of blood-evidence testimony Lee gave decades ago in the trial of Wendall Hasan, who has been in prison since 1986 for a murder. And last month the Connecticut Supreme Court criticized Lee when it overturned the convictions of Sean Henning and Ralph Birth for a 1985 murder, again over blood evidence. The men served more than 30 years in prison.
According to the 80-year-old Lee, these challenges are bogus, and his testimony in all those cases was truthful and accurate.
“They shouldn’t be able to just try to smear my reputation to get out of jail,” he told The Associated Press. “There has to be standards and ethics for everyone.”
While we can sympathize with Lee, we don’t know how it will be decided whether some of these men spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. If so, that would be the bigger injustice.
But this controversy also raises the question of whether judges and jurors are competent to understand and reach rational conclusions from the growing amount of highly technical expert testimony that may face them in court. Plenty of academic papers have been written that analyze the problem and seek to find ways that highly complicated and arcane scientific testimony can be handled by the non-experts we call on to deliver justice.
Are we too easily impressed by the credentials of an expert witness? Are we prone to believe a “celebrity” witness without question? Are jurors and judges without scientific training simply incompetent to decide some cases?
Should the courts seek more effective ways to present technical information at trial? Should they aid juries with court-supervised educational interventions? Or, even more radically, should they convene special juries and appoint expert judges in some cases?
In this country we like to believe our justice system is the best, but there is always room for improvement.
Lives, after all, are at stake.