ACLU Hails 'Landmark' Ruling Against U.S. by Int’l Human Rights Body

By Susan Jones | August 18, 2011 | 11:54 AM EDT

( - Never mind what the U.S. Supreme Court decided. An international tribunal says the U.S. government violated the human rights of a Colorado woman, whose estranged husband murdered their three children.

Jessica Gonzales, as she was known in June 1999, complained that police in Castle Rock, Colo., ignored her repeated calls for help, after her husband defied a restraining order and took their three young daughters, later shooting the girls to death.

Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States is the first case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the United States before an international human rights body, said the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Jessica Lenahan, as she is now known.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) -- in what the ACLU called a "landmark" decision -- is now recommending changes to U.S. law and domestic violence policy. It made those recommendations public on Wednesday.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Gonzales had no constitutional right to police protection.

With assistance from the ACLU, Lenahan (her name changed when she remarried) then filed a petition against the United States before the IACHR, alleging violations of international human rights.

“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. She said the IACHR decision "tells the world that the government violated my human rights by failing to protect me and my children from domestic violence.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says nations have a duty to respond to situations of domestic violence with diligent protection measures.

The commission found that Castle Rock police -- contacted 8 times by Gonzalez in a 10-hour period in June 1999 -- "did not respect the terms of the restraining order" she had obtained against her husband.

According to IACHR, "The state apparatus was not duly organized, coordinated, and ready to protect these victims from domestic violence by adequately and effectively implementing the restraining order. These failures to protect constituted a form of discrimination in violation of the American Declaration, since they took place in a context where there has been a historical problem with the enforcement of protection orders; a problem that has disproportionately affected women since they constitute the majority of the restraining order holders."

The commission found that police did not "duly investigate" Gonzales' complaints; it said the state failed to adequately investigate the circumstances of the girls' deaths once their bodies were found; and it found that law enforcement officers have not been held accountable for "failing to comply with their responsibilities."

IACHR, which derives its authority from the Organization of American States Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights, is encouraging the United States to comply with its recommendations, which include an investigation into the "systemic failures" in the Gonzales case.

It also says the U.S. should pass laws reinforcing "the mandatory character" of protection orders that shield women from imminent acts of violence.

The IACHR does not have authority to issue binding orders on U.S. government. But the U.S. State Department is expected to report on its compliance with the commission’s recommendations.

The IACHR, based in Washington, D.C., is composed of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly.

The U.S. State Department describes itself as a "strong supporter" of the IACHR, contributing $400,000 to the commission in calendar year 2010, down from $1,510,400 in calendar year 2009.