- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday vacated the sentences of three men ordered imprisoned for life without parole when they were teenagers, citing a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down such sentences.

The rulings came in the separate appeals of Douglas Mantich, 37, who was sentenced for his role in a 1993 shooting death in Omaha, and Eric Ramirez, 22, and Juan Castaneda, 21, both sentenced for their roles in a 2008 Omaha shooting rampage that left two dead and one injured. The court ordered the three to be resentenced.

According to the court record, Mantich was 16 years old when he joined several other gang members in a stolen minivan in which Henry Thompson was later shot to death and his body dumped in east Omaha. He was sentenced to life in prison the following year, after witnesses and police testified that Mantich admitted to firing the shot that killed Thompson. Mantich denied being the shooter at his trial.

Ramirez and Castaneda were 17 and 15, respectively, when they and another teen, Edgar Cervantes, carried out three separate shootings on Nov. 12, 2008, that took place within a 30-minute span, killing Tari Glinsmann and Luis Fernando-Silva. A third victim recovered from his wounds. Police said robbery was the motive.

Cervantes was sentenced to 115 years for reduced charges of robbery and weapons use in exchange for his testimony against Ramirez and Castaneda, who were each convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and a slew of weapons counts.

The state Supreme Court upheld the convictions of all three on Friday, but found the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that teenagers cannot be locked up for life without the chance of parole.

In Mantich’s case, the state’s high court found, in a split decision, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies retroactively to people in custody. It ordered post-conviction relief for Mantich by resentencing him according to a new state law - enacted in response to the U.S. Supreme Court finding - that calls for a sentence of 40 years to life for juveniles who commit first-degree murder.

The majority of the court found as Massachusetts, Mississippi and Illinois have - that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is “a categorical ban on the imposition of a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles,” Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Stephan.

But Nebraska’s Chief Justice Mike Heavican and Judge William Cassel disagreed, saying in a dissent that applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling retroactively would undermine “the finality of judgments.”

“If a judge allows his or her perceptions of fairness to intrude, the decision ceases to be an application of law and becomes an application of the judge’s personal biases and preferences,” Cassel wrote.

An attorney for Mantich, Adam Sipple of Omaha, lauded the Friday opinion, noting that more than 20 others in Nebraska prisons were sentenced to life without parole as teens.

In the cases of Ramirez and Castaneda, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that their first-degree murder sentences, too, should follow the new state law for juveniles. But the high court also found that the lower court was wrong to order their deadly weapons use sentences to run at the same time as their sentences for attempted murder, attempted robbery and conspiracy. Instead, the high court said, the sentences should run one after the other, adding between 20 and 30 years to their time behind bars.

“We’re pleased the convictions were upheld and trust the sentencing courts will ensure these men face tough penalties that reflect the seriousness of their crimes,” said Shannon Kingery, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.

An attorney for Ramirez, James Martin Davis of Omaha, acknowledged that the high court’s finding likely did little to lessen his client’s time in prison.

“We were hoping that we could get the conviction overturned,” Davis said. “We were hoping to get a new trial.”

Douglas County Public Defender Thomas Riley, who represents Castaneda, did not immediately return a phone message Friday seeking comment.

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