The state Supreme Court says a 14-year-old boy was properly sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in a Hmong boy's gruesome death.
According to court documents, Omer Ninham and four others beat a 13-year-old Zong Vang and threw him off a Green Bay parking ramp in 1998. A judge sentenced Ninham to life without parole in 2000, when Ninham was 16.
His attorneys argued the sentence is unusually cruel. They said the judge should have considered Ninham's difficult upbringing and that juveniles' brains aren't fully developed. The state Justice Department argued nothing prevents sentencing such a young person to life without parole.
Justice Annette Ziegler wrote the decision , saying:
"We appreciate the fact that 14-year-olds are rarely sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. However, we disagree with Ninham that the rarity with which the sentence is imposed is necessarily demonstrative of a national consensus against the sentence. Rather, it is equally likely that 14-year-olds are rarely sentenced to life without parole because they rarely commit homicide and, more to the point, rarely commit homicide in the same horrific and senseless fashion as Ninham. Ninham does not point to any data which would lead us to believe otherwise. In short, Ninham has failed to demonstrate that there is a national consensus against sentencing a 14-year-old to life imprisonment without parole for committing intentional homicide."
The Supreme Court says sentencing a 14-year-old to life without parole in an intentional homicide case is permissible and isn't unduly harsh. The court acknowledged Ninham's punishment was severe, but Ninham's crime was senseless and "cannot be adequately reduced to words."
Ninham's atorney, Bryan Stevenson, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I absolutely believe that it's just a matter of time before states are going to have to re-evaluate the judgment that you can punish (youthful offenders) the same way you can punish an adult," Stevenson said. "Even when children commit very serious crimes, like the crime in this case, we have to think about that crime differently."
Chief Justice Shirley Abrhamson issued a dissent, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
"Just as society's standards of decency categorically do not allow a juvenile to be sentenced to death, juveniles 14 years old or younger should not be sentenced to death in prison.
Omer Ninham's sentence guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, no matter what he might do to demonstrate that the heinous act he committed as a 14-year-old is not representative of his true character. I conclude the death-in-prison sentence subjecting the 14-year-old to "hopeless, lifelong punishment and segregation is not a usual or acceptable response to childhood criminality, even when the criminality amounts to murder." "
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