Hope For Domestic Violence Policy Reform

Implementation of Landmark Decision in the Death of Jessica Lenahan’s Three Daughters Could Drive Major Domestic Violence Policy Changes

In 1999, Jessica Lenahan’s estranged husband kidnapped their three daughters, Leslie, Katheryn, and Rebecca. Jessica immediately called the Castle Rock, Colorado, police, informing them that her husband—who had a history of abuse and emotional instability—was in violation of Jessica’s restraining order against him. Jessica was rebuffed by police, who at first told her not to worry and eventually scolded her for her concern. She called a total of eight times.

Hours later, her husband, Simon Gonzales, pulled his pickup truck in front of the Castle Rock Police Department and fired his gun at the station. Police returned fire, killing him. Jessica’s daughters, ages 7, 8, and 10, were found dead in the back of the truck. To this day, Jessica has not been told whether the bullets that killed her daughters came from her husband’s gun or from the shootout crossfire.

In the wake of the tragedy, Jessica was swept into a new nightmare—this time, a legal one. She filed suit against Castle Rock in federal court for failure to implement her restraining order, and, on appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States ultimately found that police did not have a constitutional duty to do so.

Following that decision, Jessica filed a complaint against the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), for the United States’ failure to both protect the human rights of herself and her children and to provide her with an adequate remedy before the courts.

Why is this a key case?

In a landmark decision—the first case brought by a survivor of domestic violence against the U.S. before an international human rights body—the IACHR found the U.S. violated Jessica’s rights and recommended changes to U.S. domestic violence law and policy, including legislation to reinforce the mandatory nature of restraining orders that can protect women from violence. Unfortunately, those recommendations have not yet been fully satisfied.

Jessica’s case is monumentally important, especially in its framing of domestic violence as a human rights violation with accompanying U.S. government protection responsibilities—instead of solely a private act of violence. The standard set in this case has been cited by courts around the world to hold governments accountable to their duty to address domestic violence.

How is RFK Human Rights Supporting Jessica’s Case?

After our partners at Columbia Law School and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) achieved the landmark decision in the case, the organization joined at the compliance stage to assist in the implementation of the IACHR decision. The organization is working with the lead counsel on implementation from the University of Miami’s Human Rights Clinic.

What is the Status of the Case?

In December 2015, the U.S. took steps to partially implement the IACHR decision by issuing federal guidance to state and local law enforcement in domestic violence situations. However, full implementation is still pending.

Case Partners

  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

    We joined forces to litigate the domestic violence case of Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States, which prompted the IACHR to recommend strengthening U.S. domestic violence law.

  • Columbia Law School

    We joined forces to litigate the domestic violence case of Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States, which prompted the IACHR to recommend strengthening U.S. domestic violence law.