Colorado Domestic Violence Survivor Seeks Justice In International Tribunal

October 22, 2008

Mother Gets Day In Court At The Inter-American Commission On Human Rights

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WASHINGTON – In the first case brought by a survivor of domestic violence against the U.S. before an international human rights tribunal, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will hear testimony today by Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), whose three daughters were kidnapped by her estranged husband and killed.

In 1999, Lenahan sued the Colorado police charging that law enforcement must be held accountable for its failure to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, and in June 2005, the Court ruled that Lenahan had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. Because Lenahan had exhausted all domestic legal avenues available to her, the ACLU submitted a petition in December 2005 to the IACHR on Lenahan's behalf. The IACHR held that Lenahan's case could go forward.

"We are confident that the IACHR will find that the United States violated Jessica Lenahan's human rights," said American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project Director Lenora Lapidus. "The U.S. must be held accountable for enforcing restraining orders; otherwise, these orders are meaningless."

Last year, the IACHR 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, and that the U.S. had closed off all avenues Lenahan had for legal recourse in domestic courts.

"The U.S., just as every other government, must abide by human rights laws," said Steven Watt, an attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. "This country agreed to protect domestic violence victims, and when it fails to do so should be held accountable."

At today's hearing, Lenahan's legal team is arguing that the U.S. and the state of Colorado violated Lenahan's and her children's human rights, specifically their rights to life, non-discrimination, family life/unity, due process, a remedy and special protections for domestic violence victims and their children. Lenahan and an expert in police practices, along with Lenahan's lawyers, are testifying.

"I have been waiting for justice for my children's deaths for over eight years," said Lenahan. "Finally, I have hope that an official body will finally say that what happened was wrong."

Lenahan was living in Colorado when her three young daughters, Rebecca, age 10, Katheryn, age eight and Leslie, age seven, were killed after 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 returned fire killing him, and shortly thereafter, the police discovered the bodies of the three girls in the back of his vehicle.

Established in 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which includes the United States. The Commission also conducts on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member-states of the Organization of American States and investigates specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties and other legal instruments. The Commission is charged with promoting the observance and respect of human rights throughout the Americas.

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

The hearing today is open to the public and broadcast both as a simulcast and as a webcast posted on the Organization of American States website at: www.oas.org

More information, including the petition and all briefs in the case, is available online at: www.aclu.org/womensrights/violence/gonzalesvusa.html

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