The judge in Phil Spector's murder trial ruled Wednesday that a renowned forensic expert removed and hid a tiny but potentially important piece of evidence from the prosecution but will not be held in contempt.

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler rejected a prosecution bid to instruct jurors that Henry Lee is not a credible witness, saying he would allow them to make that decision themselves.

But he said the prosecution would be allowed to present all evidence on the issue, including that presented outside the presence of the jury, to impeach Lee's credibility if he testifies for the defense.

The prosecution contends the item was a piece of fingernail with the trace of a passing bullet that would show actress Lana Clarkson was resisting having a gun placed in her mouth. Her right thumb was missing a piece of acrylic fingernail after her death. The defense claims she shot herself.

Lee denied taking any such thing from the crime scene when he testified earlier.

The judge said that of all the witnesses who testified over several weeks in hearings on the issue, the only one that he found completely credible was attorney Sara Caplan. Caplan said she saw Lee pick up a white object with a rough edge and place it in a vial during a defense search of the foyer of Spector's mansion after police were through.

Said Fidler: "If Dr. Lee has this object, he's to produce it forthwith."

But the judge said he had little confidence that would happen, adding, "I'm not going to hold Dr. Lee in contempt."

Telephone messages seeking comment from Lee after the ruling were not immediately returned. An associate said he was traveling in Italy.

Outside court, defense attorneys vouched for Lee's credibility and said they will call him as a witness. They said an inquiry into the hidden evidence issue in front of the jury could extend the trial by a week.

"Bring it on," said attorney Linda Kenney-Baden. "He will testify."

The ruling came weeks into the prosecution's case against Spector, 67, the producer whose "Wall of Sound" recording style transformed popular music in the 1960s and '70s. He's accused of shooting Clarkson through the mouth at his mansion on Feb. 3, 2003.

Clarkson, best known for the 1985 cult film "Barbarian Queen," had gone home with Spector from her job as a nightclub hostess.

Lee, former director of the Connecticut State Forensics Science Laboratory, has worked for prosecutors and defense attorneys in the high-profile cases of O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, Kobe Bryant, JonBenet Ramsey and others.

The judge acknowledged that Lee has "a large reputation."

"Dr. Lee has a lot to lose here," Fidler said in a hearing without the jury present.

In the Spector case, Lee has said his only findings at the scene were some white threads and a piece of bloodstained carpet.

Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson displayed a picture taken inside Spector's home showing something white on a wooden floor that Lee said was a gouge in the floor.

"It's clearly a white object sitting atop the wooden floor," said Jackson. "He said it was a gouge. Is he lying or is he incompetent? That is not a gouge."

Deputy District Attorney Pat Dixon said the prosecution thinks it was Clarkson's fingernail. He suggested it would have proved that "her hand was in her mouth trying to push the gun away when Phil Spector pulled the trigger."

The object would have been helpful to the prosecution, "but we will never know because of Henry Lee, who in my opinion pocketed this item," Dixon said.

Before court recessed until next week, jurors returned and saw gruesome pictures of Clarkson's bloody face and chest as paramedic David Riggs told of examining her and declaring her dead.