Man who got life sentence as a teen gets chance at release
Nga Ngoeung has been sentenced three times for the murders that sent him to prison as a teenager decades ago.
Twice he’s been sentenced to prison for life without the possibility of parole, only to see those sentences overturned on appeal.
Friday, the 42-year-old learned he’ll have a chance to be released one day.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh sentenced him to 41 years, three months in prison — after which the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board will decide when or if Ngoeung is released.
The state Supreme Court said in a 5-4 ruling last year that sentencing children to life without parole is cruel punishment that is unconstitutional.
Ngoeung is among a small number of inmates in Washington state affected by the ruling. They were sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
He was 17 when he was charged with two counts of aggravated first-degree murder for the 1994 deaths of two other teenagers in Spanaway, and two counts of first-degree assault.
News Tribune archives say Robert Forrest and Michael Welden, also 17, had thrown eggs at houses with two other boys.
Ngoeung drove as he and others chased them down, and one of the teenagers in the car shot and killed them Aug. 26, 1994.
Forrest’s father, John Forrest told the court Friday that he had some trouble with a memory test at a recent physical but that he remembers clearly the day he came home from work as a truck driver to find his son missing. He remembers driving around Spanaway looking for his boy, and he remembers seeing a chaplain walking to their door, bringing the news of his son’s death.
“The last six months have been hell,” he told Rumbaugh. “... My family has been cheated. Please sir, please put him back where he belongs.”
Welden’s father, Rick Welden asked the same.
“Leave him in prison where he belongs,” he told the judge. “... This guy does not belong on the street.”
Ngoeung was first resentenced in 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court said automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. The state Legislature responded by saying state courts should consider mitigating factors such as age, life experience and chances for rehabilitation before sentencing 16- and 17-year-olds to life without parole.
That led to a new sentencing hearing for Ngoeung in 2015, where his attorneys argued he should be given the possibility of one day getting released.
Rumbaugh disagreed then and resentenced Ngoeung to life without parole.
Evolving juvenile justice law brought the case back before Rumbaugh on Friday. The outcome this time was different.
Deputy prosecutor Jim Schacht asked the court for 66 years to life, and defense attorney Jason Johnson sought 25 years to life for his client.
Schacht noted various behavioral trouble Ngoeung has had behind bars, including participating in a 2018 riot.
Johnson acknowledged that.
“His prison record is not good,” he said. The defense attorney also said that doesn’t make Ngoeung irredeemably corrupt.
He said Ngoeung had a traumatic childhood and that that his two codefendants were more culpable in the crimes and have already been released.
Cognitive delays and a willingness to please made Ngoeung vulnerable to the influences of others, the attorney said.
Ngoeung repeated the first grade three times and ultimately stopped going to school in the fourth grade, then turned to a gang for protection as a teenager.
Johnson said the day of the shootings Ngoeung and his codefendants mistakenly thought they were reacting to an attack from a rival gang.
The attorney noted that Ngoeung will almost certainly be deported to Cambodia upon release from prison. Ngoeung has never been to that country.
Court records say he was born in a Thai refugee camp after his family fled the Khmer Rouge. They came to the United States in 1980.
When it was Ngoeung’s turn to address the court, he was soft spoken as he read a letter in which he apologized to the victim’s families.
He said he was sorry for their loss and lamented that he’d caused them to be back in court.
“I have no excuses,” Ngoeung said.
He said he caused a lot of damage by the way he had lived and that he will always feel the loss he’s responsible for.
Going forward, he said, all he can do is “hope to follow the example of this great country.”