Tracy Lee Housel v. United States

Report No. 16/04, Petition 129/02, February 27, 2004; OEA/Ser.L/V/II.122, Doc. 5 rev. 1 at 504, 23 February 2005
Download Judgment: English Spanish

This report addresses the admissibility of a petition that alleged the United States failed to fulfill its obligations under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (the Declaration). Petitioners were Barristers with Tooks Court, London, a Solicitor with Lovells, London, and representatives of the Federal Defender Program, Atlanta, Georgia.

Tracy Lee Housel was a United States citizen with dual British nationality. At the time of the original petition, he was on death row in the state of Georgia for a conviction of murder and car theft. Petitioners alleged the United States violated Mr. Housel’s the right to a fair trial under article XVIII of the Declaration because his legal counsel during representation was inadequate, unadjudicated offences were inappropriately used during the sentencing phase, and the length of his incarceration was excessive.

Petitioners further claimed Mr. Housel suffered significant physical and mental abuse during his pre-trial detention. Petitioners also contended that the effect of this treatment was exacerbated by the fact that Mr. Housel suffered from severe mental health problems, for which he did not receive treatment. They claimed that the abuse suffered by Mr. Housel, together with the sixteen years he spent on death row, violated his right to life, his right to the preservation of his health and well-being, his right to humane treatment while in custody, and his right not to receive cruel, infamous or unusual punishment, protected under articles I, XI, XXV and XXVI of the Declaration.

Petitioners asserted that the United Stats was obliged to organize its legal system so that death row inmates had a proper opportunity to challenge their conviction and to ensure these challenges were considered promptly so that inmates did not remain on death row for excessive periods of time.

The Commission previously issued precautionary measures requesting that United States to preserve Mr. Housel’s life pending the Commission’s investigation of the allegations. Mr. Housel, however, was executed as scheduled. Petitioners claimed the United States’ failure to comply with the Commission’s request for stay of execution constituted a further violation of Mr. Housel’s right to pursue a petition before the Commission, resulting in irreparable harm (death).

The Commission declared the petition admissible. It stated that after carefully reviewing arguments by both sides and in light of the heightened scrutiny test applied in cases involving capital punishment the petition tended to establish violations of articles I, XI, XVIII, XXV and XXVI of the Declaration.

The Commission noted that domestic proceedings in the United States would not have been “effective,” especially in light of United States Supreme Court’s denial of Housel’s writs of certiorari and the United States failure to comply with the Commission’s request for stay of execution.

“In its jurisprudence, this Commission has shared the view of the European Court of Human Rights that a petitioner may be excused from exhausting domestic remedies with respect to a claim where it is apparent from the record before it that any proceedings instituted on that claim would have no reasonable prospect of success in light of prevailing jurisprudence of the state’s highest courts. In these circumstances, the Commission has considered that proceedings in which claims of this nature are raised would not be considered ‘effective’ in accordance with general principles of international law.” Para. 36.

“After carefully reviewing the information and arguments provided by the Petitioners and the State in light of the heightened scrutiny test applied by the Commission in capital punishment cases, and without prejudicing the merits of the matter, the Commission considers that the petition states facts that tend to establish violations of Articles I, XI, XVIII, XXV, and XXVI of the American Declaration. In this regard, the Commission wishes to emphasize that its evaluation of whether a petition may tend to disclose a violation of the American Declaration for the purposes of admissibility cannot, as the State appears to suggest, be determined based upon the fact that similar claims were determined by domestic courts to be unsubstantiated. While it will not undertake a fourth instance review of the decisions of domestic courts acting within their competence and with due judicial guarantees, the Commission is empowered to undertake its own evaluation of the evidence presented in the proceeding before it, in light of the principles and jurisprudence of the inter-American human rights system, in order to determine whether a violation of a state’s international commitments may be involved.” Para. 42.