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O’Connor Justice Prize ceremony honors UN human rights commissioner

January 31, 2023

ASU awards Louise Arbour for her commitment to the rule of law, human rights

Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Arbour had the honor of receiving the 2023 O'Connor Justice Prize on Jan. 28. 

The award, administered by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, is inspired by the legacy of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It is presented to those with a lifelong commitment to the rule of law, judicial independence and human rights. 

Arbour, who is also the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, is in good company — former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk, both Nobel Peace Prize recipients, are among the previous winners. 

Arbour's legal accomplishments are rare and far-reaching. She has fought for human rights with courage and a certain “chutzpah” that marked her style and contributed to her success. 

In Canada, Arbour battled sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces as well as the country’s prison systems. 

As chief prosecutor for the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunals (from 1996–99), Arbour secured the first conviction for genocide (in nearly 50 years) during the Rwanda Civil War and brought the first indictment for war crimes against a sitting head of state, Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic. 

“When I reflect on your career, I can't help but see similarities with former Supreme Court Justice O'Connor,” said Barbara Barrett, attorney and diplomat who served as the United States secretary of the Air Force. “You've championed the rule of law and human rights at every level from the community to the nation to globally. And you've done it with grace, fervor and indeed, style.” 

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to lead a state senate, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court and the first woman to have her name attached to a law school. As Supreme Court Justice, she wrote 645 opinions during her tenure, including 114 cases in which she was the deciding vote.

“I admired her judicial prism,” added Barrett, an ASU alumni who engaged the audience with stories of O’Connor. “She raised three boys, so she saw right through excuses.” 

The evening kicked off with the former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth V. McGregor, who welcomed nearly 125 guests to the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia and recognized members of the O’Connor family, as well as  judges, state officials and Mexican dignitaries. 

Woman speaking at lectern during event

Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Dean Designate and Regents Professor Stacy Leeds delivers remarks during the 2023 O’Connor Justice Prize event on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

ASU Law Dean Emeritus Doug Sylvester, who established the O’Connor Justice Prize in 2014, also attended the event. 

The evening was marked by voices from the legal community, including Stacy Leeds, ASU Law's newly appointed dean. Russell Brown, the puisne justice for the Supreme Court of Canada, highlighted the qualities that contributed to Arbour’s success. 

Brown said Arbour's understanding of criminal law at a domestic and international level made her an important presence.

“Arbour had a clarity of analysis that could only be the product of having dug deep and deliberated thoroughly through the issues,” he said.

“She had the admirable and elusive judicial quality of untangling complex issues, cutting through legal bloviation and asking lawyers incisive questions that directed them and her colleagues away from the rhetorical distractions and shiny objects to the heart of the problem for the law, and just as importantly, if not more so to her for the people it serves,” Brown added. 

Like O’Connor, who fought for women’s rights — in the 1970s, she worked to gender neutralize the entire Arizona revised statutes — Arbour also had her eye on injustices toward Canadian women. She investigated an all-male emergency response team that was conducting strip searches of women prisoners at a federal prison. 

Arbour talked about her path to success before delving into deeper questions of law as it relates to interrogation, migration and climate change. 

People greeting Louise Arbor on stage to receive prize

Louise Arbour (second from left) is welcomed to the podium by (from left to right) Ambassador Barbara Barrett, retired Justice Ruth McGregor and Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Russell Brown at the presentation of the 2023 O’Connor Justice Prize, Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Arbour framed her talk around an approach that O’Connor employed, using the words “attractive and unattractive” to diplomatically voice her opinions. 

“The poverty of our moral and ethical thinking in the public discourse is very unattractive,” Arbour said. 

She talked about diversity and inclusiveness as it relates to marginalized groups including women. She discussed stereotypes attributed to women, such as collegiality, empathy and nuance, in contrast to their male counterparts who are seen as more decisive, combative and opinionated.

“To what extent is professionalism and legal training, in our case, one of the great equalizers that overtake gender characteristics?” she asked.

Arbour concluded her talk by juxtaposing “unattractive matters” like the rise in disinformation and polarization with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which demonstrates the incredible potential in each of us to reach for the stars. 

"As scientists propel us into a better future, I would like to see a rise in the justice sector — that lawyers will continue to apply their remarkable skills in the best tradition of our profession," she said.

“People like Sandra D. O'Connor have paved their way. I'm delighted that you've given me an opportunity to echo her call.” 

Top photo: Louise Arbour listens to a tribute to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the presentation of the 2023 O’Connor Justice Prize, which was awarded to Arbour on Jan. 28 at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

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CS'fly': Insect data holds clues to crimes

January 31, 2023

ASU professor develops advanced blowfly database to help solve murders

When detectives arrive on the scene of a murder, many questions arise.

When did the murder take place? What was the cause of death? Was the body moved?

The answers to these questions can come from an unexpected source — blowflies.

According to Jonathan Parrott, assistant professor of forensic science at Arizona State University, blowflies usually arrive on a crime scene just 10 minutes after a murder. They are drawn by body fluids and gasses associated with the decomposition of an open-air corpse, and like a fly on the wall, can reveal secrets about the homicide. 

But in order to accurately answer these questions, investigators need to know the precise life cycle of the blowflies. That’s where Parrott’s research comes in. 

For the past two years, the forensic entomologist has been developing one of Arizona’s first and much-needed genetic and developmental databases of forensically important blowflies to assist both crime scene investigators and the courts. The data will help determine more accurate and robust time-of-death estimations from insect evidence.

“Up until now, this data was missing from flies in Arizona,” says Parrott, who works in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

"What makes our research unique is that there has not been any DNA data alongside developmental work from Arizona blowflies available prior to our project,” says Parrott, who is also an executive committee member of ASU’s Future of Forensic Science Initiative — a transdisciplinary hub of scientists and practitioners pioneering a world-class intellectual space for forensic science.

“We are cataloging both morphological and genetic data."

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Although it is a relatively new technology, Parrott says, “DNA is the gold standard in forensic science.” 

“Having this type of data will strengthen forensic entomology in the criminal justice system."

Post-mortem messages

Using blowflies to solve murders is nothing new. According to the Chinese book "Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified," written in 1247, it dates back to 13th century China when a farmer was killed by a sickle. Villagers were asked for their sickles, and the murderer was discovered when swarms of flies descended upon the small traces of blood on one sickle.

Science has evolved since then, but one question remains — how does a blowfly crawl its way into a forensic murder investigation?

The secret is in the insect’s life cycle. The simplest explanation is that if, for example, a fly’s life span is 15–30 days from egg to fly and it takes five days to go from egg to maggot, a maggot-covered corpse would most likely have been dead for five days. 

But it is more complicated than that — hence the need for a precise species and genetic database. 

“Identification is the most critical step,” Parrott says. “Because if you identify the species wrong, you are going to be applying incorrect data to your estimated time of death.”

man looking through microscope

Assistant Professor Jonathan Parrott looks at blowflies in his forensic entomology research lab on ASU’s West campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

And here’s where it gets tricky. A blowfly species found on a body abandoned off the road during the summer in Chandler, Arizona, for example, may have a different life cycle in the winter in Glendale, Arizona.

Believe it or not, blowflies are like people in some respects. They respond differently to various outside conditions. 

“I’m from the United Kingdom," Parrott explained. "So I deal with heat very differently from someone born in Arizona, even though we are the same species. It’s the same with blowflies.”

Factors such as temperature, humidity and changing seasons can make calculations more complex and time consuming.

Project blowfly

Parrott and ASU undergraduates working in his lab are two-thirds of the way through the process of compiling the blowfly database of morphological and genomic data. 

This is a huge project, Parrott says, with thousands of collected blowflies of forensic importance. In addition to determining species in the Phoenix area, his lab is expanding to surrounding states, in particular to areas where genetic data is missing and disturbances are limited — such as national parks and monuments.

“By analyzing species from different areas, especially at the genetic level, we can answer questions about species migration, possible invasive species and learn how climate change and human disturbances are affecting species migration,” he says.

Man using tweezers to look at blowflies

Assistant Professor Jonathan Parrott looks at blowflies in his forensic entomology research lab. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Data development

Parrott and his team begin the process of accruing data with a simple plastic trap baited with a blowfly favorite: chicken liver. Traps are placed in an enclosed location just outside the lab where they can be undisturbed. Others are put in specific areas of Chandler and Avondale, Arizona. From 10 to hundreds of blowflies are collected each week and returned to the lab. At any given time there are about 3,000 blowflies in the lab.

There, insects are separated into different species — nine in all. 

Some are placed in vials with an ethanol-water solution. These are studied under a microscope both morphologically and for DNA and RNA. 

Others are placed in bug dorms — boxes covered with nets and put in an incubator, which controls temperature and humidity. 

Still others are mounted and classified in display boxes.

“We are also using the DNA data to build standard operating procedures, which are absent in forensic entomology,” Parrott says. “Since some species of blowflies are very closely related, DNA sequences can separate one species from another.” 

The data includes species, locations, dates, seasons, temperature, humidity and other conditions. Beginning this year, the electronic database will be released in increments for use by the general public.

Students rewarded with research experience

Parrott’s research lab is located on ASU’s West campus. His study is beneficial to both the forensic community and undergraduates that work in his lab. 

“It has been rewarding to work on the database project. It’s expanded my knowledge in not only forensics but general entomology,” says Kathryn Melancon, an ASU sophomore majoring in forensic science. 

“This project is important in the field of forensic entomology as it aids in identifying blowfly populations and their tendencies to stay in particular climates and locations,” says Melancon, who plans to work in forensic pathology. “This survey can also be used to monitor the rise and fall of populations.” 

Student reaching into temperature-controlled box of blowflies

Lab manager and forensic psychology graduate student Sydnee Wedel checks on the blowflies in one of the incubators in Assistant Professor Jonathan Parrott’s forensic entomology research lab. The incubators enable researchers to control light, temperature and humidity for the insects. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Sydnee Wedel has worked in the lab for two years. By now, she is accustomed to the odor in the lab caused by the decomposition of liver and other meals that flies feast upon. 

“I don’t even smell it anymore,” says Wedel, the manager of Parrott’s lab.

Wedel graduated from ASU in May 2022 with a degree in forensice science and a minor in criminology and criminal justice, and now manages the lab as a graduate student.

“I love solving problems and I love science, so it is perfect for me,” she says. 

It is Wedel and the other undergraduates who collect the blowflies from different locations.

Wedel says that ASU has given her the opportunity to learn how to do research effectively and also carry out her own experiments. 

Ultimately, she wants to work in a crime lab. 

“I really want to help solve crimes,” Wedel says. “And my background here is giving me the edge I need to work in a crime lab.

“Being knowledgeable about maggots and pupae casings and everything else you might need to solve a crime can tell you so much. It can tell you where the body has been, where it was moved, how long it has been there or if it was covered or buried.”

Through her work, Wedel has come to appreciate blowflies that she once only considered an annoyance. 

“There is so much you can learn about a murder,” she says, “just from the blowflies around the body.”

Top photo: Lab manager and forensic psychology graduate student Sydnee Wedel applies a blowfly's dyed DNA to an electrically charged gel bath in Assistant Professor Jonathan Parrott’s forensic entomology research lab on the ASU West campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News