While at the American Society of Criminology conference, I had the good luck to run into a colleague I really like and admire–Dirk Van Zyl Smit from the University of Nottingham. Dirk shared with me two recent decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in cases that he worked on (the ECHR allows professors to submit written briefs as “intervenors”, akin to what we do with amicus briefs here in the US), which illuminate the strange contortions that European countries go through in an effort to determine just how much they are willing to passively cooperate with USian punitive barbarism.
A little bit of background: Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In 1985, Protocol 6 to the Convention, which abolished the death penalty for all members, entered into effect. In accordance with the Protocol and with Article 3, all European Council members have abolished the death penalty (Belarus is not and has never been a member; Russia was recently expelled.) Moreover, the Council of Europe fights the death penalty within and outside its borders in numerous ways, including the well-documented refusal of its members to provide the U.S. with chemicals used in American execution protocols. One important aspect of this abolition-beyond-borders policy is a European Court of Human Rights case from decades ago, Soering v. United Kingdom (1989), which forbids extradition of people to the U.S. if they might face the death penalty there (virtually all European countries have extradition treaties with the US, as you can see in the above map.) Dirk tells me that the practice in these cases is to ask the U.S. to provide a guarantee that the death penalty will not be sought against the extradited person.
But what about life without parole, another form of USian extreme punishment? In Vinter and Others (2013) the ECHR found that “irreducible” life sentences were inhumane; this was applied in Trabelsi v. Belgium (2014) to the extradition setting. But later, in Harkins v. Home Secretary (2014), England’s High Court of Justice narrowly interpreted Trabelsi as applying only to life sentences that were grossly disproportionate or completely lacking in any mitigation mechanisms (such as commutation or parole.) Harkins and other cases (Wellington and Haffiz) treated Trabelsi as somewhat of an extreme aberration.
The Council of Europe’s hesitation to wage a war against LWOP makes more sense when you consider the LWOP situation in the European countries themselves, who also seem to interpret Trabelsi rather narrowly. Only Croatia, Bosnia and Herzgovina, and Portugal have abolished all forms of indefinite imprisonment. So did Spain, in 1928, but it brought the penalty back in 2015. By contrast, many countries have legally prescribed LWOP sentences: England and Wales, the Netherlands, Moldova, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Malta, Cyprus, Albania, Ukraine, Serbia, and the Republic of Ireland. In some of these countries, evidentiary findings of dangerousness can prevent life prisoners to be released. In Austria and in Ukraine, the only way out of life imprisonment is presidential clemency or a finding that the person will not commit further crimes. As a consequence of Trabelsi, the Netherlands has recently allowed resentencing of life prisoners who have served at least 25 years. Even in LWOP-retentionist European countries, courts retain judicial discretion to decide whether a sentence of life should include parole or not.
One of the two recent cases before the ECHR involved Ismail Sanchez-Sanchez, who was arrested in the UK for his role in a conspiracy to ship more than 2600 kgs of Mexican marijuana to Atlanta, GA. At his extradition hearing, Sanchez-Sanchez argued that there was “a real risk that he would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.” The British judge, following the logic of Harkins, tried to assess the likelihood that Sanchez-Sanchez would receive LWOP at his federal trial. For the drug conspiracy alone, Sanchez-Sanchez was unlikely to receive a life sentence on any count, and it was even less likely that he would be serving his sentences consecutively. The fact that one of his co-conspirators died of a fentanyl overdose made it more likely that they prosecution would request a life sentence; such a sentence, however, would not be “irreducible”, as Sanchez Sanchez could appeal, apply for executive clemency, and/or request compassionate release.
The ECHR looked at the case through the lens of both Trabelsi and the British cases, and also received some information from the U.S. federal government that addressed both the prevalence of LWOP in the federal system and the particulars of Sanchez-Sanchez’s case. As to the latter, the U.S. Attorney specified that the prosecution recommended a life sentence for each of Sanchez-Sanchez’s conspirators, but they pled guilty and so avoided that sentence. The ECHR highlights the distinction between acknowledging that LWOP is inhumane as an institution within member countries and applying it to extradition to the US:
Within the domestic context, the applicant’s legal position, having already been convicted and sentenced, is known. Moreover, the domestic system of review of the sentence is likewise known, both to the domestic authorities and the Court. In the extradition context, on the other hand, in a case such as the present where the applicant has not yet been convicted, a complex risk assessment is called for, a tentative prognosis that will inevitably be characterised by a very different level of uncertainty when compared to the domestic context. This calls – as a matter of principle, but also out of practical concerns – for caution in applying the principles flowing from Vinter and Others, which were intended to apply within the domestic context, to their fullest extent in the extradition context. . . Therefore, while the principles set out in Vinter and Others must be applied in domestic cases, an adapted approach is called for in the extradition context.
The first step in this “adapted approach”, according to the ECHR, is an inquiry into the “real risk” that the particular person facing extradition will receive LWOP after extradition. If so, we move on to the second step – an inquiry whether “there exists in the requesting state a mechanism of sentence review which allows the competent authorities there to consider whether any changes in the life prisoner are so significant, and such progress towards rehabilitation has been made in the course of the sentence, as to mean that continued detention can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds.” Because of the uncertainty surrounding Sanchez-Sanchez’s odds of LWOP, as well as the sentences of his co-conspirators, the ECHR concludes that “the applicant cannot be said to have adduced evidence capable of showing that his extradition to the US would expose him to a real risk of treatment reaching the Article 3 threshold”, which renders the second step of the analysis unnecessary.
In the second case, Beverly Ann McCallum, suspected of involvement in the brutal murder of her husband in Michigan, was apprehended in Italy (the murder was a cold case from 2004, solved only in 2015.) During her years of absence from the U.S., her daughter and a friend were charged with first degree murder (the friend pled to second-degree murder; the daughter pled not guilty, was tried, and received LWOP.) The Italian court found that the extradition could go forward given the sentence mitigation options under Michigan law, and McCallum appealed. While awaiting the decision (under home arrest due to ill health), McCallum received a diplomatic note from the Eaton County district attorney, promising that if extradited she would only face second-degree murder charges (no conspiracy charges, only disinterment and mutilation of a dead body), taking LWOP off the table and resulting in a maximum sentence of life with parole. Under Michigan law, lifers are eligible for parole after 15 years, and may also petition the governor for clemency. The Italian authorities, animated by this communique, extradited McCallum to the United States.
Before the ECHR, McCallum argued that the diplomatic note contained insufficient assurances that the Eaton County DA would not revert to the serious charges (note: they did keep their promise despite the brutality of McCallum’s involvement in the murder – H.A.) The ECHR disagreed: Diplomatic notes, they wrote–
are a standard means for the requesting State to provide any assurances which the requested State considers necessary for its consent to extradition. … [T]he Court also recognised that, in international relations, Diplomatic Notes carry a presumption of good faith and that, in extradition cases, it was appropriate that that presumption be applied to a requesting State which has a long history of respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and which has longstanding extradition arrangements with Contracting States. … [I]t seems to the Court that if, following her extradition, the original charges against the applicant were to be revived, that would not be compatible with the duty of good faith performance of treaty obligations.
The ECHR also proceeded to dismiss McCallum’s argument that her eventual release on parole depended on the unchecked discretion of the Governor of Michigan in granting clemency and was therefore “irreducible.” The Court again disagreed, highlighting the fact that the clemency power was procedural, rather than legislated, and had nothing to do with parole, which in Michigan is the sole purview of the parole board:
[T]he Court is not persuaded that the applicant’s understanding of the Michigan system is correct. It observes that. . . a prisoner’s release on parole is at the discretion of the parole board. While the Governor of Michigan indeed enjoys a broad power of executive clemency, he or she is not involved in the parole procedure. Nor do the relevant legal provisions empower the Governor to overrule the grant of parole to a prisoner. As indicated above, appeal against the grant of parole lies to the competent circuit court.
An applicant who alleges that their extradition would expose them to a risk of a sentence that would constitute inhuman or degrading punishment bears the burden of proving the reality of that risk. In light of all of the above-mentioned factors, the Court considers that the applicant has not discharged that burden. Contrary to her claim, it appears that there is no real risk of the applicant receiving an irreducible life sentence, i.e., life imprisonment without eligibility for parole, in the event of conviction of the charges now pending against her in Michigan.
I find two important takeaways here. The first is that the ECHR draws a real line between the death penalty–now widely outside of the acceptable margin of reasonable state behavior for Council of Europe members–and LWOP which, unless absolutely mandatory, remains within the realm of the reasonable. The second is that, among the members of the “extreme punishment trifecta”, life with parole–even with everything we know about the slim odds of obtaining parole–is not in the same league as LWOP, and assurances that the sentence will be the former fully satisfy the requirements of Article 3. What this teaches me is that American exceptionalism seems to have been relegated only to the world of the death penalty, and that Europe isn’t that far ahead of us in fully recognizing the possibility of LWOP as barbaric.