Written by CAPA-JRC reporters Chaiwey Chen, Emily Jia, Eileen Luo, Jeremy Chung
On July 28, 2022, the Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA-JRC) headed into the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington DC to attend an annual gala hosted by the International Leadership Foundation (ILF). Dr. Henry Lee delivered a speech at the luncheon and tossed candy out into the audience. Afterward, he and his wife, Mrs. Xiaping Jiang, headed to the conference room, where the JRC had set up cameras and a circle of chairs.
JRC reporters interviewing Dr. Lee. Image credits: Feng Li.
Dr. Henry Lee is a Chinese-American forensic scientist who has been part of many famous cases, including the OJ Simpson, Laci Peterson, and JonBenet Ramsay cases. He started his work as a police officer, then transitioned to forensic science. On paper, Dr. Lee resembles Sherlock Holmes: mysterious, professional, and very good at his work. In person, however, he was a relatable character with a spot-on sense of humor. His warmth and cheerful personality shone through as he answered interview questions, telling jokes and anecdotes about his life.
We started the interview with an overview of Dr. Lee’s career and the impressive feats he accomplished. At any rate, that was what we expected when we asked for a brief self-introduction. But after stating his birth year (1938), he asked us: “That’s a long, long, long time ago. How old?” Seconds later, as we were still working out the math, he quipped: “When I was at MIT lecturing, they all took out their calculators and started calculating.” That earned a well-deserved round of laughter.
Dr. Lee with the JRC and leaders present at the interview. Image credits: Jessica Zhang.
Dr. Lee was the first Chinese-American to become a forensic science laboratory director. In 1976, he was appointed Connecticut's chief criminalist and forensic scientist. Perhaps one of his most notable achievements was, in his words, “breaking the glass ceiling” by being the first Asian American to become a state police commissioner. He has since retired five times but still works fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.
As a child, Dr. Lee had a curious passion for reading fiction. Despite his mother's efforts, he would always be fond of fantasy or detective novels, who “didn’t want [him] to read anything but textbooks.” Instead, he continued to indulge in fiction. He was nothing if persistent; in his words, he would “[read] in the middle of the night, with a blanket covering [him] and a little flashlight.” It would take him ten minutes to read a page that we can generally scan in five, but he was truly dedicated to those detective stories.
In other words, he was destined to become a forensic scientist.
Today, he still hasn’t outgrown that love for reading. During our interview, he said that “reading is a good habit” and an excellent way to “gain knowledge.”
Despite that conflict with his mother, Dr. Lee spoke fondly of her, saying that his most outstanding achievement was not letting her down. Though she was initially opposed to his career path, his mother soon became his biggest supporter.
“When I was [little], I didn’t have a father, only a mother. She worked hard, raised the kids, and held my family together,” Lee said. “That’s why I worked hard so I wouldn’t let my mother down and could take care of myself.”
Dr. Lee also reflected that the things he did right in his life were that he challenged the impossible, worked hard, and drove himself. He advised the next generation and the JRC not to “let other people drive you around; you have to drive yourself.” Throughout his career, it is clear that hard work got him to where he is today, to the point where “after 20 some years, [police officials and people] still respect [him].”
During the interview, one of our reporters presented a collection of photos. Her mother had interviewed Dr. Lee in 1997, while representing CCTV. 25 years later, she and her daughter gifted photos from the 1997 interview to Dr. Lee. He received them cheerfully and remarked “who is this handsome young man?”
Afterwards, the JRC received a wonderful surprise– each reporter who asked a question received a signed photograph from Dr. Lee. Among the photos was one with a man hidden in the shadows and another cut off on the edge, which Dr. Lee used as a teaching moment.
When he asked us how many people there were, most of us answered seven.
Dr. Lee holding up the photo of eight people. Image credits: Mandy Guo
“Seven?” he repeated. “Everybody says seven? I don’t know. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.”
“And if someone says nine,” he added, “Are they wrong?”
With that, we were introduced to yet another dimension of his personality: his sense of justice. When asked whether he has ever committed a mistake, Dr. Lee clarified a distinction between intentional and unintentional mistakes and emphasized that he had never done the former. That latter type of error is what he was referring to with the photos; his mission is to report the facts, not intentionally put a spin on the information.
“The evidence [interpretation] is not up to us,” he said. “It’s the courts. If I say eight, the lawyer doesn’t want to hear it. They go to argue–that person is half of a person. That’s not a person.” The lawyer’s job is to interpret; his is to deliver facts.
Meeting Dr. Lee was a truly remarkable experience, and we have to give thanks to CAPA and the ILF for organizing this opportunity. We came in expecting to rattle off questions to his answers, but instead left with photos and a treasury of wisdom.
The people in our lives shape us to become who we are today, and Dr. Lee is no exception. His mother instilled in him the importance of work ethic, a trait he’s carried to this day. Even at 84, Dr. Lee continues to work, helping families seek closure by taking on cold cases. The JRC wishes him all the best!
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.