WSGR Pro Bono Team Obtains Writ of Mandamus for Family of Drug-Lord Victim

On October 16, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted in part a petition for a writ of mandamus in favor of the family of murdered Colombian anti-cocaine activist Julio Eustacio Henríquez to obtain rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA). The writ—a form of relief rarely granted in the CVRA context—comes after more than six years of efforts by WSGR in tandem with Professor Roxanna Altholz of the UC Berkeley School of Law's International Human Rights Law Clinic.

In 2001, Hernán Giraldo-Serna, a drug lord and leader of Autodefensa Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a Colombian drug-trafficking paramilitary organization, ordered the kidnapping and murder of Henríquez after his nonprofit organization publicly opposed coca cultivation on Colombia's northern coast—an area controlled by the AUC. Henríquez was abducted from an anti-coca meeting by Giraldo-Serna's men, and was not seen alive again. In March 2007, Giraldo-Serna was charged and convicted in a Columbian court of Henríquez's disappearance. However, no part of the 38-year sentence was satisfied because on May 13, 2008, Giraldo-Serna was extradited to the United States for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine with the intent to import it into the U.S.

Following Giraldo-Serna's extradition, WSGR worked with Professor Altholz to assert CVRA rights on behalf of the family at the district court. The rights afforded by the CVRA include the right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding; the right to confer with the attorney for the government in the case; the right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay; and the right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim's dignity and privacy.

For more than five years, government attorneys opposed the efforts of the Henríquez family to assert their rights and the district court sealed the proceedings in the prosecution of Giraldo-Serna. Finally, in 2015, WSGR discovered that Giraldo-Serna had pleaded guilty to the cocaine conspiracy in 2009—a fact that the government had not disclosed. The Henríquez family reasserted their request for CVRA victim status in advance of Giraldo-Serna's sentencing (currently scheduled for late 2015), which was denied by the district court on August 7, 2015, on the grounds that the Henríquez murder was "too factually attenuated" from the conspiracy for which Giraldo-Serna was convicted.

On September 14, 2015, the Henríquez family petitioned the D.C. Circuit for a writ of mandamus requesting that the court reverse the district court's order from August 7, and that the court grant the Henríquez family status and rights under the CVRA. The Henríquez family's petition argued that the district court erred in its interpretation of the CVRA, and improperly limited its consideration of evidence that demonstrates that Henríquez was murdered because of his opposition to the conspiracy for which Giraldo-Serna was convicted. Both the government and counsel for Giraldo-Serna opposed the petition.

On October 16, 2015, the D.C. Circuit granted the petition in part, finding that the district court abused its discretion, and ordered the district court to use correct legal standards to consider anew whether the Henríquez family is entitled to full rights under the CVRA. In doing so, the D.C. Circuit adopted many of the arguments set forth by the Henríquez family. The Henríquez family expects that upon further review using correct legal standards as ordered by the D.C. Circuit, the district court will grant the family full CVRA status, including the right to speak at Giraldo-Serna's sentencing to articulate how the murder of Henríquez has impacted their family and the community.

The Henríquez family is very grateful to WSGR for its sustained efforts in the pursuit of justice over many years. The WSGR pro bono team that obtained the writ included Leo Cunningham, Luke Liss, Melissa Mannino, Jasmine Owens, Whitney Costin, Anne Veldhuis, Stacy Love, and Yolanda Gutierrez-Almazan. The team also thanks former WSGR associates Lee-Anne Mulholland, Nema Milaninia, and Charlene Koski for their work advocating for the Henríquez family throughout the years.