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Wis. court OK’s teen’s life prison term

Associated Press / May 21, 2011

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MADISON, Wis. — Fourteen-year-olds convicted of homicide can be sent to prison for life without parole, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled yesterday 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 US nor the Wisconsin constitutions 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 Zong Vang, 13, in Green Bay in 1998. Ninham was 14 at the time. A judge sentenced him to life without parole two years later.

Ninham’s attorney, Byron Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, argued the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He vowed to appeal to the US Supreme Court.

“I absolutely believe it’s just a matter of time before states are going to have to reevaluate the judgment that you can punish [a juvenile] the same way you can punish an adult,’’ he said. “Children are different than adults.’’

Judges across the country rarely sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole. According to statistics compiled by the Equal Justice Initiative that the Wisconsin justices cited in their opinion, 73 children age 14 or younger across 18 states have received that sentence. The US Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that sentencing juveniles to death is unconstitutional.

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