HARTFORD, Conn. — When you enter the new $14 million home of the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, you are immersed in the bloodstained world of forensic investigation, and particularly in the cases handled by Lee in his eminent career.
First you touch a handprint on a wall that launches a video of Lee explaining that your fingerprints will now be checked with a database. Then the police sirens wail and you hear officers barking orders over a scanner. On your left is a virtual crime scene laboratory where images and pertinent evidence from Connecticut’s notorious “wood-chipper” murder case are projected on the walls. Farther in are exhibits showing how various types of light reveal bloodstains on a screwdriver; a chance to match bullets; and a look at the differences between male and female skeletal remains.
Around a corner is a room where a body — a dummy — lies in a recliner, apparently strangled, with evidence marked by numbers around the room; a bottle of beer to his left, a powder that looks like cocaine on a coffee table, a bureau with clothes spilling out.
“It gives people a chance to experience some of the processes involved in forensic science,” said Elaine Pagliaro, who is grant coordinator for the institute and an assistant to Lee. “It also shows that technology is bringing us to a whole new level.”
Tim Palmbach, executive director of the institute, said the goal is also to show the public that forensic science “is not necessarily what they’ve come to know and believe after watching ‘CSI.’”
The missions of the institute, which officially opened its new building this month, include educating the public and students and training police, lawyers and investigators in the latest forensic practices.
The new larger facility provides space for the interactive public learning center and virtual crime-scene labs, where students can step into a crime scene and experience in three dimensions the details of a case like the “wood-chipper” murder — the case involving the death of Helle Crafts in Newtown in 1986.
There are high-tech classrooms and advanced technologies for research and for consultations with police.
“The case consultation takes advantage of Dr. Lee’s expertise and his ability to see things when no one else can, and the expertise of others members of the department,” Pagliaro said. She said the institute won’t duplicate services in the community, but will enhance services, in some cases by providing technology that isn’t readily available.
For example, she said, the institute will be buying an infrared camera to examine human remains. “You wouldn’t use an infrared camera a lot and it’s a relatively expensive piece of equipment,” she said.
The institute also has a cutting-edge forensic crisis command center where UNH experts can connect by satellite with police and other governmental agencies to examine evidence that is beamed to them — thus providing help as if they were physically at the crime scene.
Other new technology that will be available include: ground-penetrating radar for locating buried bodies and evidence; a high-intensity laser to determine a bullet’s trajectory; and portable vapor detection instruments to analyze chemical and biological matter.
The state-of-the-art institute building is a testament to the burgeoning growth of the university’s criminal justice and forensic sciences college, which has also been named in Lee’s honor.
Palmbach said that when he arrived at the University of New Haven in 1978 as a student of forensic science, there were only a few dozen students in the program. Only three years before, Lee had arrived as an assistant professor and program director.
Back in those days, Palmbach said, “There wasn’t a single person, not even a guidance counselor, that if you said forensic science knew what you were talking about.”
A forensics superstar
Since then, the rise of Lee as a superstar in the forensics field — called upon in the O.J. Simpson, Scott Peterson and JonBenet Ramsey trials — and the popularity of “CSI” and other crime investigation TV shows have helped to drive the growth of the university’s department.
In the past 10 years, Palmbach said, the university’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences has doubled in size — now with an enrollment of 1,728 undergrads, accounting for 43 percent of the university’s 4,000 undergraduates.
In his speech at the opening of the institute on Oct. 15, Steven Kaplan, president of UNH, said of Lee: “Few professors in the history of American higher education have played such a pivotal role in the history of one university.”
Besides contributing his work to the university, Lee, who was traveling in India and couldn’t be reached for comment, also has contributed many of his consulting fees to the university, including the fee he got for his work on the O.J. Simpson case.
Palmbach said that because of the huge interest in the university’s forensics program, the department has learned to present a realistic picture of the rigors of the science-dominated program — biology, physics, chemistry — to prospective students. Too many students watch one episode of “CSI” and think, “ ‘That’s the coolest job in the world, I want that job,’ “ he said.
They arrive on campus “really, really excited,” and then soon wind up “completely over their heads.”
While most of the students at the 90-year-old university are drawn from the Northeast, those in the criminal justice and forensics program come from all over the country and face more demanding admissions requirements.