MADISON, Wis. — A boy who was 14 when he helped throw another boy off a parking ramp to his death was properly sentenced to life in prison without parole, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Omer Ninham’s lawyers argued that the sentence violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment given Ninham’s age when the crime was committed. State attorneys countered that nothing prevents such a sentence for juveniles in homicide cases.
The supreme court found that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without parole in an intentional homicide case is permissible and not unduly harsh. The court acknowledged that Ninham’s punishment was severe, but said his 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.”
According to the court opinion, Zong Vang was riding his bike home in September 1998 in Green Bay when Ninham and four other kids, all between the ages of 13 and 14, approached him. They began to taunt him, then yanked his bike away and beat him.
Vang fled into a nearby hospital parking ramp. The others chased him to the top. Vang repeatedly asked why they were trying to hurt him and pleaded with them to leave him alone.
Ninham and another boy seized Vang by the wrists and ankles, swung him over the edge of the ramp and let go. Vang fell five stories to his death. Ninham turned to one of his friends and told him not to say anything, and they all fled.
While Ninham was awaiting trial, he threatened a judge’s life and threatened to rape and kill his friends because they had talked to police.
Judge John D. McKay handed down the life sentence in 2000, when Ninham was 16. The judge described him as a “frightening young man,” noting he still denied ever being at the scene.