United Kingdom: Court to announce ruling on murder suspect’s challenge to USA extradition

Later this morning, human rights judges will announce their decision in a complaint concerning the extradition of a British murder suspect to the United States of America (USA).

The Grand Chamber ruling in the case of Harkins v. the United Kingdom (application no. 71537/14) will be delivered today in writing at 11h (CET).

The applicant, Phillip Harkins, is a British national who was born in 1978. In 2000, Harkins was indicted in Florida for first degree murder and attempted robbery with afirearm. He was arrested in the UK in 2003 and the US authorities sought his extradition.

In a Diplomatic Note issued on 3 June 2005 the US Embassy assured the UK Government that the death penalty would not be sought. In June 2006 the British Secretary of State ordered Harkins’ extradition.

Harkins then complained unsuccessfully before the British courts that, if extradited,he risked the death penalty or a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In 2007, the High Court found that there would be no risk of the death penalty if Harkins were to be extradited and, in 2011, it found that a life sentence without the possibility of parole would not violate Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the meantime, in 2007, Harkins had applied to the European Court of Human Rights for the first time (Harkins and Edwards v. the United Kingdom, application no. 9146/07).

In January 2012, a Chamber of the Court found that Harkin’s extradition would not violate Article 3 of the European Convention. It rejected as inadmissible the complaint concerning the alleged risk of the death penalty, considering that the diplomatic assurances, provided by the US to the UK government, were clear and sufficient to remove any risk of Mr Harkins being sentenced to death if extradited.

The court also found that the imposition of a mandatory life sentence in the US would not violate Article 3. 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.

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.

Harkins was not extradited and following the ECtHR judgments in the cases of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10, Grand Chamber)1 of July 2013 and Trabelsi v. Belgium (no. 140/10)2 of September 2014 he brought new proceedings before the domestic courts in which he argued that developments in the Court’s Article 3 case-law on life sentences without the possibility of parole were such as to require the re-opening of the proceedings.

However, in November 2014 the High Court refused to re-open the proceedings, finding that the ECtHR judgments in Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom and Trabelsi v. Belgium had not recast convention law to such an extent that his extradition would result in a violation of Article 3 of the convention.

On 11 November 2014, Harkins applied to the European Court a second time. Relying on Articles 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and 6 (right to a fair trial) of the convention, Harkins complains about his extradition to the USA, arguing that if convicted in Florida he would face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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