MADISON, Wis. – Fourteen-year-olds convicted of homicide can be sent to prison for life without parole, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday in upholding a life sentence for a man who helped throw a boy off a parking ramp when he was a teenager.
In a case watched by psychiatrists, family advocates and defense attorneys, the court found that neither the U.S. nor the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits life sentences without parole for 14-year-olds in homicide cases and no national consensus has formed against such sentences.
"We ... confirm what objective evidence already informs us: Contemporary society views the punishment as proportionate to the offense," Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler wrote for the majority.
Omer Ninham was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide for his role in the death of 13-year-old Zong Vang in Green Bay in 1998. Ninham was 14 at the time. A judge sentenced him to life without parole two years later, when Ninham was 16.
Ninham's attorney, Byron Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, had argued the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I absolutely believe it's just a matter of time before states are going to have to re-evaluate the judgment that you can punish (a juvenile) the same way you can punish an adult," he said. "Children are different than adults. Even when children commit very serious crimes, like the crime in this case, we have to think about their crime differently."
Judges across the country rarely sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole. According to statistics compiled by the Equal Justice Initiative the Wisconsin justices cited in their opinion, 73 children age 14 or younger across 18 states have received that sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that sentencing juveniles to death is unconstitutional. Last year that court ruled that life with no parole for anything less than homicide was unconstitutional as well.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have been fighting for reviews of youth life sentences in major crimes since the 2005 ruling. They argue those constitutional prohibitions should extend to homicide cases as well.
The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in Michigan last month alleging that nine people imprisoned when they were minors deserve a chance at parole because their sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
The Wisconsin justices said in their 5-2 decision that Ninham failed to show that children 14 and younger deserve different constitutional status in homicide cases. The lack of homicide life sentences for children across the country doesn't signal that national sentiment has turned against such sentences, only that juveniles rarely kill people, the justices said.
In Ninham's case, the punishment fit a crime that "cannot adequately be reduced into words," the opinion said.
Ninham and four others between the ages of 13 and 14 accosted Vang while the boy was riding his bike home from the grocery store with a bag of tomatoes for his family. According to court documents, Ninham and another member of the group started teasing Vang, then punched him. Vang ran into a nearby hospital parking ramp, where the group cornered him on the top floor.
Ninham and a friend seized Vang by the wrists and ankles. As Vang cried and screamed, they threw him over the edge. He fell five stories to his death. A bystander on the ground said he heard a sound "like a wet bag of cement hitting the pavement."
The teens fled the scene, but police used statements from some of them to track Ninham down. While he was awaiting trial, he was charged with threatening a judge and his friends who spoke to police.
Under Wisconsin law, anyone 10 or older accused of homicide can be tried in the adult system. A jury convicted Ninham of first-degree intentional homicide and child abuse in 2000. The other charges were dismissed, but the judge was allowed to consider them at Ninham's sentencing.
First-degree intentional homicide carries a mandatory life sentence in Wisconsin. The state does not have the death penalty. The only issue at sentencing is whether a judge will grant parole eligibility.
Brown County Judge John D. McKay gave Ninham, who was by then 16, life in prison and denied him any chance at parole. The judge noted Ninham had a tough family life and he snorted cocaine weekly and drank every day, usually until he passed out.
But he said the crime devastated Vang's family and the Green Bay community and described Ninham as a "frightening young man."
The Wisconsin Psychiatric Association and the Wisconsin Psychological Association were among the groups that filed informational briefs in the case. The associations' attorney, Mike Halfenger, said his clients believe a juvenile should at least have the chance at a parole, but it may ultimately be up to state legislatures to reach that conclusion on their own.
"At least hold the door open," he said, "for the argument that the person I appeared to be as a minor is not the person I was capable of becoming."
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