Extradition of murder accused to US not breach of human rights

19 January 2012 by

HARKINS AND EDWARDS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM – 9146/07 [2012] ECHR 45 – Read judgment

The European Court of Human Rights has found that there would be no breach of Article 3 ECHR (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) in extraditing two men accused of murder to the US.

The men argued that they face the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole if found guilty. The US had given assurances to the UK government that the death penalty would not be sought. The following summary is based on the Court’s press release (my abridgement):

The facts

The applicants, Phillip Harkins and Joshua Daniel Edwards, are respectively a British and a United States (US) national, born in 1978 and 1987.

They were indicted in the United States, in 2000 and in 2006 respectively, for murder, among other offences. Mr Harkins was accused of having killed a man during an armed robbery attempt together with an accomplice. Mr Edwards was accused of having intentionally shot two people, killing one of them and injuring the other, who had allegedly made fun of his small stature and feminine appearance. Both applicants were arrested in the United Kingdom (UK), in 2003 and 2007 respectively. The US Government requested their extradition providing assurances that the death penalty would not be applied in their case and that the maximum sentence which they risked was life imprisonment.

In June 2006 and June 2007, the British Secretary of State ordered Mr Harkins’ and Mr Edwards’ extradition. They complained unsuccessfully before the British courts that, if extradited, they risked a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment).

Following their subsequent applications to the European Court of Human Rights, in which they asked it to prevent their extradition, the Court applied Rule 39 (Interim measures) of the Rules of Court, indicating that the UK Government should not extradite them until further notice.

Complaints, procedure and composition of the Court

Relying in particular on Article 3, both applicants complained that, if they were extradited to the United States, there would be a real risk that they would face the death penalty. They also complained about the possibility of receiving sentences of life imprisonment without parole. The applications were lodged with the European Court of Human Rights respectively on19 February 2007 and 1 August 2007.

Decision of the Court

Alleged risk of death penalty (Article 3)

The Court considered that the diplomatic assurances, provided by the US to the British Government – that the death penalty would not be sought in respect of Mr Harkins or Mr Edwards – were clear and sufficient to remove any risk that either of the applicants could be sentenced to death if extradited, particularly as the US had a long history of respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Therefore, the Court rejected the applicants’ related complaints as inadmissible.

Life imprisonment without parole (Article 3)

In Mr Harkins’ case, the Court was not persuaded that it would be grossly disproportionate for Mr Harkins to be given a mandatory life sentence in the US. He had been over 18 at the time of his alleged crime, had not been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and the killing had been part of an armed robbery attempt – an aggravating factor. Further, he had not yet been convicted, and – even if he were convicted and given a mandatory life sentence – keeping him in prison might continue to be justified throughout his life time. And if that were not the case, the Governor of Florida and the Florida Board of Executive Clemency could, in principle, decide to reduce his sentence.

As regards Mr Edwards, he faced – at most – a discretionary life sentence without parole. Given that it could only be imposed after consideration by the trial judge of all relevant factors and only if Mr Edwards were convicted for a pre-meditated murder, the Court concluded that such a sentence would not be grossly disproportionate. Consequently, there would be no violation of Article 3 if either Mr Harkins or Mr Edwards were extradited.

Other articles

The Court rejected Mr Edwards’ related complaint under Article 5 as inadmissible.

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1 comment;

  1. Regarding life imprisonment without parole, the European Court of Human Rights stated in 2001 (Einhorn v France), regarding an extradition to Pennsylvania, that:

    “the Court does not rule out the possibility that the imposition of an irreducible life sentence may raise an issue under Article 3 of the Convention. In this connection, the Council of Europe documents to which the applicant referred (the general report on the treatment of long-term prisoners, drawn up by Sub-Committee no. XXV of the European Committee on Crime Problems (Council of Europe, 1977), and Resolution (76) 2 on the treatment of long-term prisoners, adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in the context of the Sub-Committee’s work) are not without relevance. Consequently, it is likewise not to be excluded that the extradition of an individual to a State in which he runs the risk of being sentenced to life imprisonment without any possibility of early release may raise an issue under Article 3 of the Convention (see Nivette, cited above, and also the Weeks v. the United Kingdom judgment of 2 March 1987, Series A no. 114, and Sawoniuk v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 63716/00, 29 May 2001).”
    (para. 27)

    How does the current decision match with the criteria adopted in Einhorn case (and the case law thereby referred to)?

    Koldo Casla

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