The Bulger Case
The Bulger Case
By: Diane Taylor
Date: June 20, 2001
Source: Guardian Unlimited. "Special Report: The Bulger Case." Interviews by Diane Taylor. 〈http://www.guardian.co.uk/bulger/article/0,,509699,00.html#arti-cle_continue〉 (accessed January 22, 2006).
About the Author: Diane Taylor is a contributor to Guardian Unlimited, the online presence of the British daily newspaper The Guardian, which was founded in 1821. Together with its Sunday paper The Observer, The Guardian and Guardian Unlimited reach an audience of over 4.5 million adults in the United Kingdom each week.
On February 12, 1993, two-year-old James Bulger became separated from his mother Denise while out shopping in a mall in Liverpool, England. Shortly afterwards, a security camera showed him being led outside by two young boys. What then happened shocked the nation and drew comment and controversy from around the world. The boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were only ten years old, yet they beat and battered James to death, perhaps also subjecting him to a sexual assault. They finally abandoned his body on a railway line to be run over by the next train. His remains were discovered by a group of children the following morning.
A trail of evidence led the police to pick up Venables and Thompson for questioning on February 18, 1993. Thirty-eight witnesses had seen James in their company on their journey to the railway and, indeed, the child had almost been rescued on several occa-sions. The boys' age made their interrogation by detectives difficult. They lied, contradicted themselves, blamed one another, and became extremely distressed. But Venables soon broke down and admitted his guilt. Thompson did not admit his part in the crime for several more years. As the age of criminal responsibility is set at ten in England, the police were able to charge them with James's murder and they had to stand trial. The article reproduced below discusses the issues surrounding criminal responsibility and was written around the time of the boys' release in 2001.
The question: The age of criminal responsibility in England is 10, which allowed James Bulger's killers to be prosecuted. Should it be altered?
Dr. Ann Hagell
Co-director, Policy Research Bureau
There is no other legal or social arena where we give children complete responsibility at 10, mostly for good reason. The important thing is the consequence of being over the age of criminal responsibility, not the age per se. Other countries with a very low age (10 or less) usually have a period where responsibility is not absolute until mid-to late teens, or where the response to breaking the law is welfare-oriented rather than retributive. For example, the age in Scotland is eight but the consequences are almost all framed within the welfare system.
Verdict: Age isn't the issue
Director, Howard League for Penal Reform
Our age of criminal responsibility is one of the lowest in Europe. Other European countries have set the age at 14, 15, 16 or, in some cases, at 18. If children do something wrong they should be dealt with through the care system not the criminal justice system. Children know if they have done something wrong, but they don't know the difference between various levels of wrongdoing. What all children know is that the world of adults is capricious and that parents don't always respond to things in the same way. The age should be raised to 14 and then 16.
Verdict: Yes, to 14
Solicitor for Jon Venables at his trial
I think that Thompson and Venables did know the difference between right and wrong at the age of 10, but they were treated like circus animals at the trial. When the case went to the European court, it ruled that proceedings in future cases of this kind should be more informal. If the age of criminal responsibility at the time of the Bulger killing had been 12, the boys wouldn't have been prosecuted and there would have been outrage. It could be argued that their sentence starts the day they are released. With their new identities they will have to live a lie.
Director, Children's Legal Centre
I would say about 14. I think that at that age children are better able to understand the consequences of what they are doing. A child of 10 who has committed an offence is more appropriately dealt with in the care system than in the criminal justice system. The European court says that a child must be able to participate in their own defence and I think a child of 14 is able to do that. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has said that 10 is too young for criminal responsibility. If our aim is rehabilitation, it is best done under the civil system, not the criminal justice system.
Verdict: Yes, to 14
Mothers Against Murder and Aggression
Children of 10 know the difference between right and wrong. They know you don't hurt small children. The killing of James Bulger was a planned and covered-up crime. Any parent will tell you there are cases where children play rough and get hurt, but they know it's wrong to kill a child and Thompson and Venables knew that, otherwise they wouldn't have covered it up and lied about it. We have children as young as eight, or even six, terrorising people on estates such as the one I live on. I also think parents should be held responsible for their children's behaviour.
Verdict: Yes, to 8
Mother whose child was killed by young boys
My five-year-old daughter, Silje, was killed by two boys near our home in Trondheim, Norway. It was a year after the killing of James Bulger, and the two incidents were compared in the press. In Norway, where the age of criminality is 15, the boys were treated differently. Silje was stripped, stoned and beaten, and left for dead. I do not understand why and I will never recover, but I don't hate the boys. I think they understood what they had done, but not the consequences. The boys went back to school, were helped by psychologists and have had to learn how to treat others to fit back into society.
Verdict: Yes, to 15
The trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson took place in November 1993 amidst huge publicity. Prior to this, they had been housed in special secure units, separate from one another, under false identities. They appeared at Liverpool Crown Court where they entered not guilty pleas; on this occasion Venables began to hyperventilate. A psychiatrist judged him fit to stand trial, however, and established that he understood the severity of the crime of which he was accused. Another psychiatrist used dolls to get Thompson to re-enact some of the details of the crime. She reported that he, too, was fit to stand trial and that although, like his friend, he had a poor school record, was of above average intelligence.
Both boys were small for their age and had to stand on a specially raised platform during the trial, so that they could view the proceedings. The judge referred to the defendants as Child A and Child B but, of course, they were still on view to all court observers, including the Bulger family. The defense argued that a fair trial would be impossible because of the intense publicity the case had generated, but the judge dismissed these objections. Because the defendants were under the age of fourteen, it was necessary for the prosecution to establish that they knew their actions were severely wrong. Their teachers and psychiatrists claimed that they were so aware and knew the difference between right and wrong. The defense argued, however, that although both boys came from a disturbed background, they had no record of violent crime, only of shoplifting and truancy. The murder of James was, they said, a prank that had gone horribly wrong.
The jury began its deliberations on November 24, three weeks after the trial began. It did not take many hours before the guilty verdict was returned. Venables and Thompson were sentenced to detention for as long as it took for them to be fully rehabilitated. The judge also allowed the media to publish the boys' names.
The case did not rest there. It was referred to the European Commission on Human Rights. In 1999, the European Court ruled that Venables and Thompson had not had a fair trial. They were too young, it was ruled, to have been tried in an adult court. The raised platform proved to be a particular issue—it was inappropriate and degrading, the court said. Furthermore, the boys could not be expected to understand the complexities and formalities of the British legal system to which they had been exposed. The European Court ruling upset both the Bulger family and Albert Kirby, the detective who led the investigation. The issue over how long the two boys should remain in custody and who had the legal right to free them remained. It has always been clear that their release would be problematic—they would need to be provided with new identities and would need protection indefinitely. Too many people have threatened the boys and their families for them to walk free without appropriate provisions being made for their safety. Venables and Thompson were released from custody in 2001 and their current whereabouts are unknown.
Morrison, Blake. As If. London: Granta Books, 1998.
Crime Library. "Young Killers—The Death of James Bulger." 〈http://www.crimelibrary.com/classics3/bulger/〉 (accessed January 22, 2006).