Bulger killers: childhood on trial

Why the lives of the boys who killed two-year-old James Bulger are still a national obsession.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables killed two-year-old James Bulger in February 1993, when they were aged 10. Now, their parole hearings and potential release have provoked outrage among James Bulger’s family and their supporters, who claim Thompson and Venables should be sent on to an adult prison.

The murder of James Bulger, by two young children, was particularly horrific. The subsequent trial, in Preston Crown Court in November 1993, was always going to provoke high emotions and an unusual level of media interest. Nobody would ever understand why the boys did what they did; nobody would ever expect James Bulger’s parents to forgive them.

But the case, and the years following it, have been marked by cynical politicking, inflammatory conjecture and legal yo-yoing: all of which have taken Thompson and Venables’ actions out of the realm of crime and punishment, and into something entirely more confusing and complex.

First, there was the decision taken in 1993 to try Thompson and Venables, by then aged 11, in an adult court. The confusion this injected into the notion of criminal responsibility was noted at the time; and Blake Morrison, author of As If – a personal account of his coverage of the Bulger trial – has summed it up like this.

‘Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for T and V [Thompson and Venables] to be tried by 10-year-olds, rather than adults, since this would mean, as juries are supposed to mean, judgement by one’s peers?’ muses Morrison. ‘ … Of course not. Ten-year-olds as jurors? I wouldn’t trust their maturity, judgement, intelligence – the qualities said to be present in T and V when they killed James.’

Society does not treat 11-year-olds as having the same level of responsibility as adults when it comes to most aspects of life: living independently, working, voting, smoking, drinking, driving … the list goes on. Yet in this case, two young children were assumed to be as capable of, and responsible for, premeditated murder as anybody over the age of 18.

The treatment of the 11-year-olds Thompson and Venables as though they were adults went on throughout their trial. After their arrest, Thompson and Venables were initially referred to as ‘Child A’ and ‘Child B’; but before long they became fair game, with their names, photographs and life histories paraded across the newspapers. In his summing up back in 1993, the trial judge Mr Justice Morland uttered the now immortal phrase: that the killing of James Bulger was ‘an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity’. As the chilling judgement reverberated throughout the British press, it took the notion of Thompson and Venables’ responsibility for their actions one step further. These 11-year-olds were not only seen as comparable to adults, in committing a heinous crime: they were seen as monsters, and their crime as the worst thing that anybody had ever done. Ever.

No wonder, then, that nobody knows what to do with Thompson and Venables now they have served their time and are up for parole. The way in which the law courts and the media bandied around the phrase ‘unparalleled evil’ made sure that the murder of James Bulger would never be seen as a crime for which its perpetrators could be punished and then released. Thompson and Venables became an ‘exceptional case’ not because they were the first children ever to kill another child, but because they were consistently presented as exceptionally evil and inherently wicked.

From 1993 onwards, the Bulger case has been a political football. Their crime has been used as a justification for political crusades from banning videos to lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Following Mr Justice Morland’s proposal that Thompson and Venables serve a minimum recommended sentence of eight years, then Tory home secretary Michael Howard leapt in in 1994 to raise their sentence to 15 years.

Howard’s populism ushered in a new wave of legal wrangling. The House of Lords rejected Howard’s 15-year proposal; and by 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that only the courts should set tariffs. The European Court also ruled that Thompson and Venables did not receive a fair trial. When the Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf ruled, in October 2000, that the young men’s process of parole should begin immediately, this, again, was controversial.

The fact that Thompson and Venables, at the age of 18, are now adults adds to the intractable nature of this case. Commenting on Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’ decision in January 2001 to protect the young men’s anonymity, Denise Fergus, James Bulger’s mother, said: ‘As children, one can understand them being given some protection. But what right have they got to be given special treatment as adults?’ Yet it is precisely the lack of protection afforded to Thompson and Venables when they were children that has created the situation in which we find ourselves now. When a legal system insists on treating children like adults, it should not be surprised to find a backlash when it appears to treat adults like children.

Those who support Thompson and Venables’ release and subsequent right to anonymity have emphasised the dangers they face from ‘mob violence’. The claim, by James Bulger’s father Ralph, that he would ‘hunt down’ his son’s killers has been much reported. But James’ parents’ anger is understandable. Far more dangerous is the role that the media and respected institutions, like the law courts, have played in galvanising the widespread hatred of Thompson and Venables.

It was a judge, after all, who talked about ‘unparalleled evil and barbarity’ – a phrase that formed the basis for newspaper headlines for years to come. Tabloids and broadsheets alike have scrapped over every lurid detail of James Bulger’s murder and his family’s misery, and pushed headlines screaming ‘Luxury life of the Bulger killers: treats, trips and gifts for pair’ (Sun, 9 January 2001). With judges preaching sermons on good and evil, politicians making populist gestures and the media picking like vultures over the body of little James, the ‘mob’ is the least of the problems facing Thompson and Venables on their release.

A fundamental principle at stake in the Bulger case is whether it is legitimate to hold children responsible for adult crimes. This principle started to die the moment Thompson and Venables entered an adult court. The rulings made by the European Court, Lord Justice Woolf and Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss all imply that society was wrong to treat two pre-pubescents as though they were capable of going about the business of premeditated murder with the mature mindset of an 18-year-old. But now the age of criminal responsibility has been lowered to the age of 10, and now ever-younger children are dragged through the courts on such adult charges as rape, it seems that the problems raised by the Bulger case will only become more intractable.

Thompson and Venables will always be seen as Mr Justice Morland’s incarnations of ‘evil’, and they will never be considered to have paid the price for their crime. A life of ‘luxury’? Hardly.

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Topics Politics