US court approves life without parole for 14-year-old
Wisconsin’s top court ruled Friday that sending a 14-year-old killer to jail without the chance of parole is not an “unduly harsh and excessive” punishment for a gruesome crime.
Omer Ninham is one of more than 2,200 US teens sentenced to life in jail without parole after they were prosecuted as adults, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Some 73 of those cases involved children aged 13 or 14 at the time of the crime.
In what the court described as a “horrific and senseless crime,” Ninham was convicted of picking a fight with a 13-year-old boy who was riding home on his bike in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Ninham and a group of four other teens did not know Zong Vang, a Hmong immigrant, but just decided to “mess with this kid” in September 1998, court records showed.
They beat him and chased him up the ramp of a nearby parking garage, where Ninham and a 13-year-old boy beat Vang some more then grabbed him by the ankles and wrists, swung him back and forth over the edge, and let go.
A bystander testified that Vang’s 45-foot fall sounded like “a bag of wet cement hitting the pavement.”
“Under the circumstances of this case, Ninham’s punishment is severe, but it is not disproportionately so,” Judge Annette Ziegler wrote in the 5-2 decision.
“We conclude that his sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is not unduly harsh and excessive.”
Ninham’s lawyers vowed to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court on the basis that it violates constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
“To say to any child of 14 — or 10 — that you are beyond hope, beyond any chance of redemption or rehabilitation is cruel,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“The United States is the only country in the world to sentence children to die in prison.”
The US Supreme Court ruled last year that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide cases is unconstitutional.
Under Wisconsin law, juveniles aged 10 or older can be tried as adults if they are accused of homicide and face a mandatory life sentence if convicted.
It is up to a judge to decide if parole will be a possibility.
Ninham’s lawyers urged clemency based on his age and troubled life — he came from an extremely dysfunctional family and had been getting drunk to the point of passing out nearly every day sine grade school and snorting cocaine on a weekly basis.
The circuit court judge described Ninham as “a frightening young man” and said his problems were no excuse because he was “a child of the street who knew what he was doing.”
Now 26, Ninham petitioned the court to modify his sentence, arguing that young teens ought to be treated differently than adults and that the sentence violates constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.
The state court concluded the punishment was “not categorically unconstitutional” and that Ninham “has failed to demonstrate that there is a national consensus against sentencing a 14-year-old to life imprisonment without parole when the crime is intentional homicide.”