The Death Row Phenomenon

No. 12 of #50cases.

When a person is convicted of murder in the United States, they can sometimes find themselves on death row. Can the UK extradite a murder suspect if they then may face capital punishment?

In 1985, a young German national, Jens Soering was dating an American, who lived in Bedford Country, Virginia. One evening her parents were found dead having suffered severe stab wounds to the neck, throat and body. A year later, Jens, who was now in the UK, admitted killing the parents after an argument about his relationship with their daughter. Jens claimed that his actions were at least partially a result of suffering from a mental abnormality. This was supported by psychiatric evidence.

The Government of the United States soon requested the extradition of Jens Soering to face murder charges in Virginia. Unlike in the UK, a jury in Virginia is able to sentence a defendant found guilty of murder to death. Jens Soering appealed against the UK Government’s decision to extradite him to the United States arguing his treatment in Virginia would amount to torture.

In Soering v United Kingdom, the Human Rights Court agreed with Jens. Although extraditing a defendant to a country with the death penalty does not itself represent a breach of human rights, there were certain conditions on death row in Virginia which would have meant Jens suffering inhumane treatment. The judges labelled this the ‘death row phenomenon’. For example, he would probably have to wait for around eight years before finally facing capital punishment which would itself lead to psychological trauma. Conditions on death row were also found to be dangerous, notably to the risk of sexual abuse and physical attacks. Jens was found to be particularly likely to suffer such treatment because of his age and mental state. The treatment Jens would have suffered was inhumane. The UK could not extradite him.

Jens’s case is now perhaps better known for another reason. It was used by terrorist suspect Abu Qatada in his (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to avoid deportation to Jordan.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

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