The Wisconsin Supreme Court has decided to review the life imprisonment without parole sentence imposed on 14-year-old Omer Ninham, a Native American child who is the only person in Wisconsin sentenced to die in prison for an offense at age 14. EJI is arguing that Omer’s sentence is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court will address whether Omer’s sentence is unconstitutional in light of United States Supreme Court precedent establishing that age has constitutional meaning in the sentencing of children and Wisconsin law establishing heightened protections for 14-year-old children.
In Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that children under age 18 at the time of the offense cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for most offenses. Children are categorically less culpable than adults because they are immature, vulnerable to negative peer influrences, and have an innate capacity for change, the Court reasoned, those convicted of non-homicide offenses “should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential.”
EJI argues that, because the characteristics that make children less culpable than adults apply with even greater force to young adolescents like Omer, it is cruel and unusual to sentence him to die in prison.
Omer Ninham is the child of alcoholic parents and, by age ten, was exposed to and permitted to drink alcohol daily – even in the classroom, where his teachers looked the other way. His parents and older brothers physically and emotionally abused Omer, using closed fists and weapons, requiring police intervention, and resulting in Omer’s father’s incarceration for domestic violence. Omer got his first toothbrush at age 14, when he was removed from his parents and sent to a youth home.
At age 14, according to the trial court’s findings, Omer was with four other young teenagers when a bullying episode escalated into a tragic assault, resulting in the death of a 13-year-old boy.
Despite having no prior violent record, Omer was tried in adult court and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment with no possibility of parole. Seven years later, at age 23, Omer was examined by a clinical neuropsychologist who concluded that he no longer suffers 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.
EJI took on Omer’s case in 2007 as part of its effort to assist 13- and 14-year-old children sentenced to die in prison.