2-year old James Bulger was killed on February 12th 1993.
The young age of his killers (10-year olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables) and manner of his killing caused major discussion in the UK as to how young people can be tried for murder.
The efforts to release the killers as adults – with new identities – and Venables on-going mental problems and re-arrest have also raised issues as to how to release youth offenders.
Thompson and Venables remain the youngest convicted killers in British history.
James Bulger was out with his mother at a shopping centre in a town near Liverpool when, with his mother momentarily distracted, Thompson and Venables abducted him (the two boys were skipping school that day).
The two abducters took Bulger 2 1/2 miles through the town. Bulger was then tortured and murdered. His body was left on a railway track, an effort to disguise the murder as an accident.
CCTV footage of Thompson and Venables leading Bulger out of the shopping centre was shown across the UK, hoping someone would recognise them. A still photo of the image has become an infamous and widely recognised picture in the UK.
A woman who knew the boys were playing truant recognised Venables, and the two boys were arrested a week after the murder.
It is believed 38 people in total saw Thompson and Venables walking Bulger across town, but most assumed Bulger was a brother of one of the boys. One couple spoke to the three, being told they were taking the child to the police station. One newspaper criticised the passersby for not doing more to investigate, labelling them ‘The Liverpool 38’.
The trial of the 2 10-year olds (now 11) got a lot of media attention, although neither Thompson’s or Venable’s names had been released to the public. Both boys were at the trial, but neither spoke (evidence was based on police interviews and physical evidence linking them to Bulger and objects left at the scene).
The boys, after psychological examination, were tried as adults. This decision was later criticised by the European Court.
Both were found guilty. They were given a minimum of 8 years, with their status to be reviewed when they became adults (over 18).
At this point the boys’ names and police mug shots were released. These pictures of the two 10-year olds also became infamous photos. This too was later criticised.
Thompson and Venables were both sent to juvenile detention centres.
Public reaction to James Bulger’s killing was already strong – one original suspect’s family had to flee his town due to public anger. When the identity and age of the killers was released, it became fervent.
Many in the country believed Thompson and Venables should stay in prison for life (The Sun newspaper, Britain’s most read paper, got nearly 300 000 people to support a ‘Life means life’ campaign). Home Secretary Michael Howard bowed to pressure and successfully increased the boys’ sentence to 15 years, but this was later overturned.
On the other hand, some believed that 10 year olds were too young to be tried as adults and their lives could be turned around.
Some politicians, including Prime Minister John Major and future Prime Minister Tony Blair, suggested Britain needed to change its values.
On-going Problems with Venables
At the time of the murder it was widely perceived that Venables was the more immature (some saying Thompson was close to psychopathic). The re-arrest of Venables (now under a different name) for child pornography and drug use, the need for him to have at least 4 new identities, and his ‘indefinite’ detention has made some people argue that he was not properly helped.
Laws on Child Killers in the UK
The two boys were tried as adults. This changed British law.
Children under the age of 10 cannot be tried for crimes in England.
Children aged between 10-and 17 are only tried if it can be shown they knew the consequences of their actions.
However, children aged 10 and above can be tried as adults in exceptional circumstances. This is one of the youngest ages in the world.
Several people who have attempted to release the details of Thompson and Venable’s new identities have been charged with ‘contempt of court’.