A judge in the United Kingdom rejected an extradition request for a man who allegedly shot a security guard at a University of Texas at Austin fraternity party, citing inhumane conditions in the Texas prison system. The man fled to Scotland, his home country, before his case went to trial in Texas.
Keri Blakinger, a reporter for The Marshall Project and a columnist for NBC, spoke to Texas Standard about why the judge found that the state’s prisons and jails violated human rights. Listen to an interview with Blakinger in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: What specifically did the judge in this case take issue with when it comes to Texas prison conditions?
Keri Blakinger: There’s a broad array of things that that he flagged is not meeting human rights standards over there. And it was things like, the lack of oversight was one issue; the heat was another. There were some concerns about the quality of the food, the forced labor. It was a lot of the things that anyone who follows this has seen, being reported on in recent years. But ultimately one of the biggest issues was just the cell size.
Way too small?
Yeah. There was a case in 2012 that set some standards for a European human rights, in terms of the cell size. It was a case involving a Russian prisoner, and in that case, the court determined that the cells needed to have more than 3 square meters of unencumbered space, meaning 3 square meters, not including the bed or the sink or the toilet. And in Texas prisons, many of the cells are bigger than that, but many of them are not. And some of them are as small as less than 2 square meters. And the Texas prison system was not willing to guarantee that this man would be housed in one of the cells that was deemed an adequate size.
How rare is this to have an extradition request denied?
Having an extradition denied in and of itself is not super rare, but what is rare is to have an extradition denied solely on concerns about conditions – and for it to succeed just on conditions is rare. Experts told me that this is something they’d not heard of before. It’s a little difficult to ascertain for sure that it’s never happened, but it’s at least extremely rare.
What did Texas prison officials try to do to convince Scottish authorities to approve McGee’s extradition?
Well, not enough. Evidently, when the court asked them various questions, they provided some extensive letters of just answering the questions, factually. But the key thing that they wouldn’t do is they would not offer an assurance. And that’s a pretty standard procedure that if the European Human Rights Court determines that there may be some potential violation in sending a prisoner back to a country, they ask for what’s called an “assurance,” which is a guarantee that, you know, we’ll make sure this prisoner is not treated in that way, or if it’s a death penalty case, maybe we’ll make sure that person is not subject to the death penalty.
It’s a thing that’s routinely asked. But in this case, when the Scottish authorities asked, like, “Hey, will you guarantee that this guy will be housed in a big enough cell?” They would not make that guarantee.
Could this set a precedent for future extradition attempts?
It’s really unclear what this definitely means for the future. On the one hand, lawyers and future cases can cite it. But on the other hand, in the end, the judge did not have a formal written opinion, so there’s nothing for future lawyers to cite. That also means that it’s just harder for them to even know that this case occurred because there isn’t this formal written opinion.
There were interim filings along the way, there was an expert report, there was a hearing. The judge had to make decisions at a lot of points, and some of them have a paper trail. But those aren’t always releasable, and the really key decision at the end was not a published opinion, so that could make it harder.