WI Upholds Life Without Parole for 14 Year Old

Omer Ninham was 14 when he was part of a group of kids that killed a 13 year old by throwing him off the top of a parking garage. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Wisconsin Supreme Court today upheld the sentence. The opinion is here. The defense argued:

Ninham mounts a categorical constitutional challenge, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life imprisonment without parole is cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Wisconsin Constitution. In the alternative, Ninham seeks sentence modification on the grounds that (1) his sentence is unduly harsh and excessive; (2) new scientific research regarding adolescent brain development constitutes a new factor that frustrates the purpose of the sentence; and (3) the circuit court relied on an improper factor when imposing the sentence.


36 states allow death-in-prison sentences (life without parole) for juveniles as young as 14. 3 states do not. The Supreme Court has not yet addressed the issue. From the dissent:

A next logical question is whether a death-in-prison sentence for a juvenile who committed an intentional homicide crime is categorically prohibited. The United State Supreme Court has yet to take up the following issue: whether a death-in- prison sentence for a juvenile 14 years old or younger who committed an intentional homicide is categorically prohibited.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that juvenile offenders are less culpable than adult offenders and generally the younger the juvenile offender, the more his or her culpability diminishes.

...Recognizing that juveniles have less culpability than adults and so are less deserving of the most severe punishments, the United States Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment severe penalties imposed on juveniles. "The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential." Graham, 130 S. Ct. at 2032.

Ninham is the only juvenile 14 or younger sentenced in Wisconsin to death-in-prison for a homicide.

Only 73 juveniles in 18 states are serving a death-in-prison sentence for homicide committed when 14 years old or younger.

The two dissenting judges also write:

Applying the rationale used by the United States Supreme Court in Eighth Amendment cases, I conclude that the Wisconsin statute allowing the imposition of a death-in-prison sentence for a homicide committed when a juvenile is 14 years old violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This case lies on the boundaries of an evolving standard of decency that underlies the analysis of Eighth Amendment rights.

...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.

< French and African Media Out Name, Photo of DSK Accuser | Friday Afternoon Open Thread >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • As a former Wisconsinite, I am deeply ashamed of (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by jawbone on Fri May 20, 2011 at 11:57:57 AM EST
    what's happening in my home state. OMG.

    Voter suppression, union destruction, contraception denied to the poor thru defunding Planned Parenthood (which was my only means of obtaining contraception as a student).

    Good grief.

    I Hear Ya (none / 0) (#4)
    by ScottW714 on Fri May 20, 2011 at 01:03:51 PM EST
    I am from Wisconsin as well and it's not the state I grew up in.  It pains me to visit and see the result of a people who watch too much Fox News.

    I'm going back this summer on a grand tour including Milwaukee, Point, and the Dells.  I'm mildly excited, but more concerned it's going to be my last visit.  Last time all I ran into was Fox talking points, coming from friends and family and it just plain painful.


    You'll be fine in the city of Milwaukee (none / 0) (#13)
    by Towanda on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:20:58 PM EST
    which I often visit, and it still is blue.  But to get to the Dells and Point, you will have to drive through the Milwaukee suburbs and, shudder, Waukesha County.  So just be sure to not have to stop; fuel up and pack food and liquids!  (But not too many liquids, or you will have to stop, after all . . . and if you have any librul bumper stickers, they then will be readable, and you will need us to go bail.)

    We also usually treat people (and animals) better (5.00 / 0) (#14)
    by CST on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:22:10 PM EST
    than this kid was treated for his entire life up to the point of this incident.

    violence begets violence.

    How is a child supposed to learn the value of life when their own life has such little value to those around them?

    Frankly, if this article and the court documents are correct in their depiction of his upbringing, his parents/guardian had better be in jail.

    Yes (none / 0) (#15)
    by jbindc on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:33:24 PM EST
    Something needs to be done about abusive parents.  This kid should have had help long before this. And those parents should be horsewhipped,for starters, IMO.

    But taking this specific kid out of it for a minute - how do you explain the fact that there are many people who were abused who don't go around dropping other kids from 5 story buildings?


    they have help (none / 0) (#16)
    by CST on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:35:54 PM EST
    or they grow up before they get into too much trouble

    or their personality is such where they figure out how to cope

    and frankly many people who don't have help go on to become violent adults


    Yes they do (none / 0) (#17)
    by jbindc on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:40:56 PM EST
    And hopefully this kid can put his talents to use, even if he's behind bars, or if he wins on whatever appeal he tries.

    But some abuse victims also don't get help and still manage not to kill people.

    And as always, we have to remember, his victim doesn't get a second chance.


    And neither will we... (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by kdog on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:54:17 PM EST
    when a society based on all punishment, no chance for redemption reaches its inevitable end.

    I mean if this kid doesn't qualify for a second chance, why have juvenile courts and juvenile justice at all?  Have one size fits all justice and save some cash if this is how we wanna roll.


    Yes, we do treat (5.00 / 2) (#20)
    by Zorba on Fri May 20, 2011 at 04:06:26 PM EST
    animals better than we treat humans, in many ways.  Michael Vick's dog-fighting pit bulls, despite calls from some people and organizations (including PETA and The Humane Society of the US) to have them euthanized, have been given a second chance, and many of them have been rehabilitated.  Four of them have even become certified therapy dogs.  What we can do for dogs, we surely can at least attempt for humans.  I am not in any way minimizing what Ninham did, but I'm not willing to say that he can never, ever be rehabilitated.

    No we don't (none / 0) (#24)
    by nycstray on Sat May 21, 2011 at 12:07:23 AM EST
    we routinely kill dogs just because they are pit bulls. No crime committed by the dog aside from being born a pit. Many places kill perfectly healthy well socialized pits because they don't adopt them out based on breed alone. Doesn't matter if they are 8wks or 8yrs. The Vick dogs were a major exception and it will be a long time before that ever becomes the norm. There are a number of places that ban these dogs and many more that would like to. I won't even get started on all the other innocent beings that are killed via our nation's animal care and control agencies and humane societies . . .

    actually, what really surprises me (none / 0) (#2)
    by cpinva on Fri May 20, 2011 at 12:35:52 PM EST
    is that they didn't sentence him to burning at the stake. good to know we've achieved evolving standards.

    Oh man (none / 0) (#3)
    by CST on Fri May 20, 2011 at 12:55:36 PM EST
    I read the linked article.  Read it and weep:

    "Ninham suffered physical and mental abuse at home, and was regularly drinking alcohol by age 10. He never had a toothbrush until he was put into juvenile detention. His lawyers say he has made great progress in prison.

    When he was 23, a clinical neuropsychologist concluded Ninham "no longer suffered from the severe behavioral deficits that dominated his young teenage years and has grown into a thoughtful young man whose prognosis for successful re-entry into the community, and absence of recidivism, is very good."

    When I read the description, what came (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by Anne on Fri May 20, 2011 at 04:51:36 PM EST
    to mind was the word "feral;" this poor kid was a feral child, in every sense of that word: unsocialized, unable to bond - the whole works.

    Does it excuse what he did?  Of course not. Has he already paid a price?  Yes, I think he has.

    The question I keep asking is, is there any redemptive value in providing this young man with the tools necessary for him to rescue himself from the consequences of a neglect he never asked for?

    Do we want to help people get better, or do we just want to marinate in anger and revenge and bitterness?  If it were my child who had died this horrific death, I have no doubt it would be a monumental loss to come to grips with, but I would like to think that at some point, I would realize that if it set someone on a path to being a human being, my child's death would not be for nothing.

    I hope that makes sense and doesn't sound like I'm saying there should be no consequence for the crime committed, because I'm not saying that.  

    But I have to say that as much as my heart hurts for the family of the child who was killed, my heart also hurts for the child who came into this world and was left to fend for himself.


    This fairly much (5.00 / 0) (#25)
    by JamesTX on Sat May 21, 2011 at 12:15:16 AM EST
    tells the story:

    He never had a toothbrush until he was put into juvenile detention.

    The issue with my kids was getting them to use a toothbrush, but they had them. Can you imagine what else this kid didn't have that we all take for granted when we make judgement about his capacity for moral reasoning among a group of kids acting out at 14?

    I have never understood harsh adult sentences for minors, but I am obviously in a minority. If the majority just can't get it, and can only see the eye-for-an-eye perspective, God help us all. Give us mercy, not justice.


    However (3.50 / 2) (#5)
    by nyjets on Fri May 20, 2011 at 01:29:06 PM EST
    All of this happened after he killed someone. So to a certain extent, he can never atone for what he has done.

    Good Point If... (5.00 / 0) (#7)
    by ScottW714 on Fri May 20, 2011 at 02:02:22 PM EST
    ... he was an adult, maybe even if he was in high school, but 14, really ?  At what age is too low for life imprison w/o parole ?

    No one is suggesting he not pay for his sins, but life in prison for a crime he pulled at 14, are we really hitting this level of barbarianism.  Add in the context of his childhood and only the the most blood thirsty can call this justice.

    Seems like something they wouldn't have done in the stone ages, much less medieval times, and certainly not something a modern society does with it's youth.  Even grown adults rarely get life w/o parole for murder.

    He deserves prison, but he also deserves some compassion especially if the accounts are true and he was basically disregarded at birth, this human being will never know love or freedom, ever, and that is heartbreaking and injustice.  

    Throw away kids, who's lives amount to one big stain on society.  If someone treated an animal they way society is treating this kid, they would be locked-up for cruelty.


    Not if the animal (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri May 20, 2011 at 02:37:17 PM EST
    threw a 13 y/o boy off a 5 story bldg to his death.

    I can't say I support LWoP for this guy, but the way he killed the boy is really horrific.


    Kids Are Not Animals (none / 0) (#9)
    by ScottW714 on Fri May 20, 2011 at 02:55:57 PM EST
    To be fair (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by jbindc on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:01:56 PM EST
    The kid he threw off a 5 story building wasn't an animal and he isn't going to get the chance to show how much he's "grown up" and become a good boy.

    One life is wasted (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by CST on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:02:44 PM EST
    wasting another isn't going to bring him back.

    Cutting Off His... (none / 0) (#27)
    by ScottW714 on Mon May 23, 2011 at 12:14:47 PM EST
    ... arms and legs isn't going to bring the kid back either, and they're not doing that.

    The thing is with humans, once a person is gone they are gone, let it go.  Dead people don't care, because they are dead, or if you are godly person, they are in a better place.

    So lockup is two part, keeping the rest of us safe, and punishment.

    Since he was 14 at the time of the crime and an adult now, what is a fitting punishment.  Not for me to answer, but holding an adult responsible for his entire life because of one incident as a child seems like over kill.  If he was 14, maybe 14 years, half his life in lock-up seems more than enough.  

    And punishment, I doubt anyone would argue that a young man in prison probably pays for his crime in ways most grown adults don't.  I would think his time is far worse that a hardened criminal's.  I'm sure his innocence has been thoroughly exploited.  But again, I don't know.  But the people looking out for his welfare should, and they should be determining when his debt to society has been paid in full, not some panel of politically appointed judges who's decision is based on the self preservation fear of not letting another Willie Horton out.


    actually, (none / 0) (#23)
    by cpinva on Fri May 20, 2011 at 10:21:00 PM EST
    in the middle-ages he'd have been either hung or beheaded, depending on what country he was in. in fact, the US has to its credit several adolescent executions, and not just 2 or 300 years ago.

    yes (none / 0) (#6)
    by CST on Fri May 20, 2011 at 01:36:52 PM EST
    that whole "growing up" thing happened after he killed someone.  Which is kind of the point.

    proof for prisons for kids (none / 0) (#22)
    by diogenes on Fri May 20, 2011 at 08:26:44 PM EST
         I guess you'd say that putting young teens into prisons for about ten years might the best thing that could happen to them, and that we should rehabilitate more of our persistent delinquent teenage offenders by giving them longish prison sentences, however WITH the possibility of parole.
         Of course, there is the phenomenon of the "caught psychopath" who behaves wonderfully while under the tight control of a prison.  The neuropsychologists could describe this as well; such a person also has no visible behavioral deficits.

    Omer is Native American, fwiw. (none / 0) (#18)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri May 20, 2011 at 03:52:21 PM EST

    And his victim was Hmong American (none / 0) (#26)
    by Towanda on Sat May 21, 2011 at 01:40:12 PM EST
    so this is an incredibly multilayered tragedy as a commentary on us as a multicultural society that has done the right thing for some people who did right by us -- but whether we ever can compensate for all of the past sins of our society, who knows.