Human Rights Hero

JESSICA LENAHAN IS A HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER who is also the survivor of a horrific domestic violence tragedy. In 1999, her daughters—Leslie (age 10), Rebecca (age 9) and Katheryn (age 7)— were abducted by her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales. Jessica repeatedly called police in Castle Rock, Colorado for help, explaining that she had a restraining order against him.

The police were dismissive, telling her to wait until the father brought the children home. Ten hours after Jessica’s first call, Gonzales drove up to the police station and began shooting. Officers fired back, killing him. The bodies of the three girls were subsequently discovered in the back of his truck. Authorities failed to conduct a proper investigation, leaving questions unanswered about the cause, time, and place of their deaths.

Jessica filed a federal civil rights suit against the Castle Rock police. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow to Jessica’s cause, finding in Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales that the Constitution did not require police to enforce the restraining order Jessica had secured against her estranged husband.

With expert legal support from the Human Rights Clinic at Miami University Law School; the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University Law School; and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and Human Rights Program, Jessica continued her fight because she felt her basic human rights had been violated. She filed a petition against the U.S. before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). On August 17, 2011, the IACHR delivered a landmark decision, declaring the United States responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her children. The decision received considerable international media attention. Amnesty International launched a letter-writing campaign to urge the U.S. government to implement the IACHR’s decision in Jessica’s case.

Throughout her legal battle, Jessica always insisted that she was advocating for the rights of women throughout the world, to avoid seeing her tragedy repeated. A woman of Native American and Latina descent, Jessica hopes one day to open a domestic violence prevention and healing center for Native American women. The USHRF is honored to recognize Jessica as a remarkable human rights defender and to present her with the first Human Rights Hero award.

Human Rights HeroJessica Lenahan (center), winner of the first-ever Human Rights Hero Award, with her lawyer Caroline Bettinger-López (second from right); Berta Colon and Michele Lord, presidents of Public Interest Projects (far left), Risa Kaufman of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University; and Steve Foster, President of the Overbrook Foundation and Chair of the U.S. Human Rights Fund (far right).

The contributions of Caroline Bettinger-López were also acknowledged

At the University of Miami Law School, Caroline Bettinger-López directs the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami Law School. The clinic focuses on transnational and international human rights litigation and advocacy in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean. Before joining Miami Law, Caroline was the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Institute and Lecturer-in-Law and Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. Prior to teaching, Caroline worked as a Skadden Fellow and Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. At the ACLU, she filed a landmark case against the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Jessica Lenahan. Caroline holds a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from Columbia Law School.