Human Rights Clinic Plays Key Role in International Tribunal Landmark


After 12 years of fighting, Jessica Lenahan has received a measure of justice. In a landmark decision, an international tribunal has found the U.S. government responsible for violating the human rights of a Colorado woman and her three daughters, who had been victims of domestic violence.

Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States is the first case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the U.S. before an international human rights body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The IACHR ruling proposes comprehensive changes to U.S. law and policy pertaining to domestic violence. Lenahan is represented by the Human Rights Clinic at Miami Law, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The case concerns a tragic 1999 incident in which police in Castle Rock, Colorado, failed to respond to Lenahan's repeated calls for help after her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, kidnapped their three young children in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. Ten hours after Lenahan's first call to the police, her husband drove up to the Castle Rock Police Department and began firing his gun at the police station. The police returned fire, killing Gonzales. Inside the truck, the police found the bodies of the three girls — Rebecca, Katheryn, and Leslie — who had been shot dead. The commission concluded that local authorities failed to conduct a proper investigation into the children's deaths, resulting in questions about the cause, time, and place of their deaths that remain unanswered to this day.

"I have waited 12 years for justice, knowing in my heart that police inaction led to the tragic and untimely deaths of my three young daughters," said Lenahan. "Today's decision tells the world that the government violated my human rights by failing to protect me and my children from domestic violence."

The commission's decision stands in stark contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Town of Castle Rock v. Jessica Gonzales (2005), where the justices ruled that Lenahan (who was then known as Jessica Gonzales) had no constitutional right to police protection, and that the failure of the police to enforce Lenahan's order of protection was not unconstitutional. Lenahan then filed a petition against the U.S. before the IACHR, alleging violations of international human rights.

"The commission's determination that the United States violated Ms. Lenahan's and her children's human rights by failing to ensure their protection from domestic violence has far-reaching implications," said Professor Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, director of the Human Rights Clinic at Miami Law. "As our country seeks to promote human rights of women and children around the world, we must also look at our own record here at home."

Established in 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is charged with promoting the observance of and respect for human rights throughout the Americas. The commission is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by all 35 member-states of the Organization of American States, which includes the United States, and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties, declarations and other legal instruments.

The Commission concluded that the State failed on several fronts. The Castle Rock Police Department failed to provide for equal protection before the law under Article II of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. Also, the State failed to take reasonable measures to protect the children, which violated their right to life under Article I of the American Declaration, in conjunction with their right to special protection as girl-children under Article VII of the American Declaration. Finally, the Commission found that the State failed to provide judicial protection of Jessica Lenahan and her children, under Article XVIII of the American Declaration.