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  April 17, 2000

Lee: Science a Tool Against Human Rights Abuse

Forensic science can help protect human rights, says Henry Lee, one of the world's foremost forensic scientists. Not only can forensic evidence help protect the public by identifying missing persons, linking a criminal to a case or exonerating an innocent person, in the long run it may serve as a deterrent, Lee said.

Lee, Connecticut's commissioner of public safety, was speaking to an almost full auditorium at the Dodd Center on Tuesday. His presentation was the fourth in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings internationally renowned speakers to the University to discuss human rights issues.

Showing slides of gruesome scenes, interspersed with flashes of humor, Lee said crimes have occurred the world over and throughout the ages. "If you look at human history, it's a history of violence," he said.

But if crime is universal, an equally fundamental human trait is the desire to find out what happened and to identify victim and perpetrator. What has changed in recent years is the availability of scientific techniques to unravel such mysteries.

Confessions have long been one method of determining guilt, he said. As a result, people on every continent have been forced to confess to crimes they may not have committed.

Another established method, eye witness identification, is notoriously unreliable, he said, turning to a slide of three mug shots, including one of Lawrence Carver, the state medical examiner, to illustrate the point. "He looks like a typical child abuser," he said jokingly of Carver, "but that one in the middle" - pointing to a picture of himself - "looks like a nice guy."

Lee said having a sense of humor is essential in his profession. "You see so many things every day - and I've been doing this for 40 years - if you take it too personally, like a rubber band you will stretch and break."

Lee said forensic science offers more objective ways to identify a suspect, identify human remains, reconstruct a crime, and determine the manner and cause of death.

Not only have the techniques become increasingly sophisticated - a search of 2 million fingerprints that once would have taken 52 years to complete by hand can now be accomplished in 17 minutes using a computer database - the science has changed too. Use of DNA evidence came to the profession in 1989, Lee said: "It's a very important scientific tool now. We can even type the hair."

The role of the forensic scientist has changed radically too. Lee recalled a case on which he was consulted 25 years ago. Although he had scientific evidence that the accused - a mentally retarded man convicted of raping a woman and killing her and her baby - was not guilty, he called in three other scientists to support him. They were all reluctant to testify: "At that time it was very unpopular to challenge the authority of the police."

Now, however, Lee is sought after around the world, by individuals and governments alike, for his talent and skill in solving crimes.

But despite his extensive experience in the United States and around the world, Lee said a trip with half a dozen scientists to the mass graves in Bosnia had a profound impact. "That trip really changed my life perspective," said Lee, who as a child had to flee the Communist Revolution in China. "Every city we went through there was total destruction. ... People lost loved ones, homes, just for something called war."

Coming across a mass grave containing 7,000 bodies, was devastating, "even for a lot of seasoned forensic scientists," he said. "We had never seen a tragedy like this."

After finding the bodies, the scientists had to identify them and then - the most difficult part - inform the families so they could give their loved ones a proper burial. "I couldn't speak the people's language," he said, "but there's something called universal language. We developed an excellent friendship. They know we care."

Lee said the group also worked with scientists in Croatia to develop their own capacity to investigate cases. One of the big challenges for the future of forensic science, he said - along with the high-tech developments of microchip DNA, image enhancement, artificial intelligence, and crime mapping - is the human dimension: figuring out how to pass on knowledge and experience.

"Some day we're all going to be gone," he said. "Forensic science is not like other science; experience plays an important role. We don't want the next generation to make the same mistakes."

Ultimately, if enough cases are solved, Lee hopes forensic science can serve as a deterrent against future atrocities. "Scientists have a role in protecting human rights," he said, "so we can make the world a better place to live."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu