Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Holds U.S. Responsible for Protecting Domestic Violence Victims

October 9, 2007 12:00 am

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International Tribunal to Hear Colorado Woman’s Case


NEW YORK – Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), whose three daughters were kidnapped by her estranged husband and killed, and whose domestic violence protection claims were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, will finally get her day in court. In the first decision of its kind, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled on Friday that it will hear her case. The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic represent Lenahan.

The IACHR, an international human rights tribunal based in Washington, D.C., found that countries in the Americas, including the U.S., are responsible under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man for protecting victims of domestic violence. The IACHR also found that Lenahan had unsuccessfully exhausted all domestic legal avenues available to her.

"This is a historic decision," said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. "It sends the message, loud and clear, that the United States is subject to and must enforce the international legal protections of victims of domestic violence."

When the IACHR fully considers the case, it will decide whether the U.S. and state of Colorado violated Lenahan's and her children's human rights, specifically the rights to life, non-discrimination, family life/unity, due process, and to petition the government, as well as the rights of domestic violence victims and their children to special protections.

"We couldn’t have hoped for a better decision," said Steven Watt, an attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. "We are optimistic that the Inter-American Commission will finally bring justice Lenahan and her little girls."

Lenahan was living in Colorado when her three young daughters, Rebecca, age 10, Katheryn, age eight and Leslie, age seven, were killed when local police failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband. The girls were abducted by their father and although Lenahan repeatedly called the police telling them of her fears for the safety of her daughters, the police failed to respond. Several hours later, Lenahan's husband drove to the police station with a gun and opened fire. The police shot and killed him, and then discovered the bodies of the three girls in the back of his pickup truck.

Lenahan's case is the first individual complaint by a victim of domestic violence to be brought against the United States for international human rights violations.

Lenahan filed a lawsuit against the police, but in June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that she had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. In December 2005, she filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying that the inaction of the police and the Supreme Court’s decision violated her human rights.

"When the home country fails to protect the rights of its own citizens, international tribunals are another means to seek justice," said Caroline Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. "The Inter-American Commission’s decisions have significant international and moral weight."

Lenahan has come to epitomize victims of domestic violence in the United States who all too often lack advocates within the law enforcement community. The Violence Against Women Act was recently amended to include a provision for funding of "Jessica Gonzales Victim Assistants," individuals dedicated to liaising between victims of domestic violence and law enforcement. The positions are so named in recognition of Lenahan's tragedy. States that receive these grants can use some of the money to fund the positions, but few states, including Colorado, have availed themselves of the option.

"The IACHR’s ruling will help victims of domestic violence across the Americas," said Lapidus. "They now can seek redress for abuse when their own countries’ police departments and government agencies fail to help them."

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959 and is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which includes the United States. It also conducts on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member-states of the Organization of American States and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties and other legal instruments. Its charge is to promote the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas.

Lenahan is represented by Lapidus, Araceli Martinez-Olguin and Emily Martin of the ACLU Women’s Rights Program, Watt of the ACLU Human Rights Program and Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic.

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