Friday, July 25, 2014

Implementation of Lenahan v. US and a Tribute to Jessica Lenahan

By Carrie Bettinger-Lopez


In May 2014, Colorado Senator Irene Aguilar presented a Tribute to Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), a domestic violence survivor from Colorado whose three children were killed in 1999 after police failed to respond to her calls to arrest her estranged husband, who had kidnapped the children in violation of a restraining order. (Click here for a short video about Ms. Lenahan’s case). The tribute commends Jessica’s "determined crusade, validated by a favorable ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in her case,” and “reaffirm[s] the fact that freedom from domestic violence is a basic human right that government must ensure for all." Here is an image of the Tribute in its entirety.

Here is a photo  of Senator Aguilar (right) and Jessica Lenahan (left), and here is a video of Senator Aguilar reading the Tribute to Jessica.

That same month, Boston became the 11th municipality to adopt a resolution declaring that “freedom from domestic violence is a fundamental human right.” “DV Free” resolutions like the one in Boston are inspired by Jessica Lenahan’s case (many cite specifically to her case) and have cropped up across the country, in municipalities as diverse as Cincinnati, Baltimore, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Travis County, Texas. Many of these resolutions contain a charge to governmental agencies to incorporate the ““freedom from domestic violence is a fundamental human right” principle into the agencies’ policies and practices, and some go even further, assembling task forces or working groups for further follow up.  (Note: If you are interested in working on such a resolution in your municipality, please email me offline and I can add you to a listserv I am hoping to put together with colleagues).

To understand why the Colorado Senate Tribute to Jessica Lenahan and the “DV Free” resolutions are such a big deal (at least for some of us “human rights at homers”), let’s rewind to 2011, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a landmark decision in Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) vs. United Statesthat found the United States responsible for human rights violations against Ms. Lenahan and her children, on account of the failure of the police to respond to her repeated calls for help and the U.S. judiciary’s failure to provide her a legal remedy.  The Commission issued several recommendations focused on policy and individual-focused remedies in its decision. On the policy level, the Commission recommended that the United States adopt legislation, resources, regulations, training, and model protocols concerning the enforcement of domestic violence restraining orders, protection measures for children, and law enforcement investigation into missing children in the domestic violence context.  The Commission also urged the United States to adopt “public policies and institutional programs aimed at restructuring the stereotypes of domestic violence victims, and to promote the eradication of discriminatory sociocultural patterns that impede women and children’s full protection from domestic violence acts.”

On an individual level, the Commission urged the United States to conduct “a serious, impartial and exhaustive investigation” into both the systemic failures by the Castle Rock Police Department and into the cause, time, and place of the deaths of the girls. (Note that it is still unknown to this day who killed the children, as I discuss below). Additionally, the Commission urged the United States to provide “full reparations” to Ms. Lenahan and her son.

Indeed, a lesser-known fact in Ms. Lenahan’s case is that, despite her repeated requests, the authorities never investigated the cause, time, and place of Ms. Lenahan’s daughters’ deaths.  In fact, according to an expert report by Professor Peter Diaczuk, a forensic crime scene expert witness retained by Jessica Lenahan’s legal team, Colorado authorities erred in several areas of their investigation: the collection and preservation of physical evidence; crime scene photography; analysis and reporting of forensic evidence; the chain of custody of the evidence and evidence that appears to be lost or missing; trajectory analysis; and blood spatter analysis. Despite these conclusions, no investigation has occurred.  To this day, Ms. Lenahan does not know whether her estranged husband Simon Gonzales killed the children or whether they were casualties of the gunfire between Mr. Gonzales and the police. She has never been able to put a date of death on her daughters’ headstones.

 A human rights framework is based in principles of accountability, empowerment of survivors, and structural solutions to address root causes. The “DV Free” resolutions and the Colorado Senate Tribute take important steps forward in concretizing these principles and realizing the Inter-American Commission’s policy and individual-focused recommendations in Lenahan. To be sure, much more needs to happen to fully implement the decision and vindicate Ms. Lenahan’s rights (I have written more about this theme here). Next up in Colorado: we need a full-fledged investigation into the deaths of Rebecca, Katheryn, and Leslie Gonzales. Getting that investigation underway will take significant time and effort, but it is of paramount importance to Ms. Lenahan, and the Senate Tribute nods toward its import. Additionally, advocates in Colorado are trying to develop a statewide “DV Free” resolution, which would be a first – and a symbolically important one at that – amongst the 11 municipal resolutions.  Stay tuned for more in the coming months.

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