For the past 12 years, Jessica Lenahan has fought to know the truth about the awful summer night in 1999 that ended in her three young daughters being found dead in the back of a pick-up truck.
Legal battles all the way to the US Supreme Court have not dealt with why the police were not required by law to protect her girls, despite knowing they were at risk of domestic violence at the time.
But a recent finding by an international human rights body may spur important reforms to improve protection for US victims of domestic violence.
“For so many years, women who are the victims of domestic violence have had the burden of proof,” said Lenahan.
“I’m a little bitter, but optimistic that this decision might be a way to help others.”
A failure to protect
Local authorities in Castle Rock, Colorado knew that Lenahan, then Jessica Gonzales, and her daughters Leslie, Katheryn and Rebecca – aged 7, 8 and 10 – had long suffered domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband Simon Gonzales.
But despite a court restraining order against Gonzales, police failed to respond to Lenahan’s repeated pleas for help – seven phone calls and a visit to the police station – after he arrived at their home unannounced on 22 June, 1999 and drove off with the girls.
Early the following morning, Gonzales drove to the Castle Rock police station and fired shots through the window, prompting a shoot-out with police that left him fatally wounded. After the gunfight ended, Leslie, Katheryn and Rebecca were found dead in the back of the truck.
Since then, US authorities from Castle Rock right up to the US Supreme Court have repeatedly denied Lenahan access to all the answers about how and when her daughters died, and she has never received any reparations for her suffering.
“I want them to tell me whose bullets actually killed my children, and where and when did they die?” Lenahan recently told Amnesty International.
While she feels that those questions may never be answered completely, the recent decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights gives her hope that she may finally see some positive change for others at risk of domestic violence.
When the US Supreme Court decided in June 2005 that police had no constitutional duty to enforce the restraining order against her estranged husband, Lenahan felt crushed.
“Everything I had learned as a child about what was right and wrong, and that the government should be there to protect me, turned out to be wrong. It was such a blow to me – I was broken for about a year,” she said.
Those pushing forward her case felt frustrated that they had run out of legal avenues in the USA, Caroline Bettinger-López, one of a team of lawyers supporting Lenahan’s case, told Amnesty International.
But with the moral support of her mother Ernestine Rivera, the next year Lenahan and her lawyers kept fighting, filing a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
The Commission, based in Washington, DC, promotes and defends human rights throughout the Americas. Once domestic legal avenues have been exhausted, victims of human rights violations can pursue their cases with the Commission, which recommends steps that governments can take to remedy the situation.
In August 2011, the IACHR published its report on the case, finding that US authorities “did not duly investigate the complaints presented by Jessica Lenahan before the death of her daughters. [They] also failed to investigate the circumstances of their deaths once their bodies were found.”
The Commission’s decision recommends that the USA examine how it fails domestic violence victims and enact comprehensive reforms at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that victims receive adequate protection from their abusers.
It is being hailed as a victory for domestic violence victims.
“As this case and the decision illustrate, there is no excuse for failures to enforce protection orders promptly and effectively, especially after repeated pleas to the police,” said Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Law and Policy.
“Authorities tell us that it is difficult for them to prevent violence. In this case they could have acted to save the lives of three children but chose not to. Let's hope such decisions to ignore cases of domestic violence will never happen again.”
“US authorities at all levels must take notice of the Commission’s findings to ensure women and girls who suffer domestic violence are given adequate protection and victims are offered help and reparations.”
An avenue for change
Caroline Bettinger-López, one of Lenahan’s lawyers, said she is guardedly optimistic about the potential impact of the recent decision.
Over the next several months, she and Lenahan will be meeting with US government officials to discuss ways to better protect women and girls facing domestic violence.
“I hope some doors open as a result of this decision,” said Bettinger-López.