Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

Was Justice Served?

Here's a Grimm's fairy tale, "How Children Played Butcher with Each Other":

Three children get together for a game. One will be the butcher, one will be the cook, and the other will be the pig. The "butcher" cut the throat of the "pig" while the "cook" caught the blood in a basin. An adult sees what has happened, and immediately hauls the two remaining children to the mayor. They cannot decide what to do. Was it innocent child's play or murder? A wise elder made the following suggestion: the judge would hold a juicy red apple in one hand, and a gold coin in the other. He would call to the "butcher" child to him and see what he chooses. If he chooses the apple, the boys are innocent. But if he chooses the gold coin, the boys would be put to death. As it turns out, the child, in his innocence, took the apple, and everyone was satisfied.

Jon and Robert took James from the front of a butcher's shop, but we can assume that they knew what they were doing. At what age does "Doli incapax" end, or in other words, when do children lose their innocence? For Britain, it was the age of ten. Both Jon and Robert, ten years and six months old, were six months past the legal limit. Of course, imposing a fixed date on culpability is hardly effective. Jon was less mature than the average ten-year-old-boy, but that does not matter in court.

As Geraldine Bedell points out, most studies on child cruelty are intended to explain violence in adults and are conducted on adult offenders. Did they hurt animals? Start fires? We are concerned with the process of violence as a seed in the child, but need to study the proverbial "bad seeds" themselves, for their own sake. Some studies have suggested that children go through a "cruel phase." Do some children get stuck here indefinitely? The rampant escalation of schoolyard shootings has been blamed on a number of things — violent films, video games, and easy access to guns. But Robert and Jon's murder did not involve shooting down distant targets within minutes. It is the intimacy that is most troubling. They walked with James for an entire afternoon. They held him, soothed him at times, and carried him across the street. How were they able to stone James to death and smack him with an iron bar after holding his little hand in their own?

Recent rulings

The boys are now teenagers, serving their sentences in their familiar secure units. The Lord Chief Justice increased their sentences, which were originally set for eight years, to ten years. But Home Secretary Michael Howard, in reaction to public concern over the case, bumped up the sentence to fifteen years. But defense lawyers argued that politicians had no business tampering with criminal sentences, and challenged the ruling. The case has gone to the European Commission of Human Rights. In late 1999 the European Court decided that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were not given a fair trial in 1993, and concluded that the ten-year-old boys should not have been tried as adults. The raised platform, on which the defendants sat during the course of the trial, was inappropriate and intimidating. Above all, the formalities of the British legal system were beyond the boys' comprehension. The European Court awarded the boys the cost of their trials, which is being put toward their defense expenses. But the ruling that concerns people the most is that Howard's imposed sentence of 15 years was not legal. Currently, Jon and Robert's release date has been deferred to the Lord Chief Justice to decide.

The new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, will be reviewing the boys' sentences. "I think it is very important that all those involved should have an opportunity to have an input into the process..." he announced. That means that James Bulger's parents will have a say in the length of the sentences.

Denise with husband Stuart (CORBIS)
Denise with husband Stuart
Needless to say, Denise Bulger, who has since remarried, is against releasing the boys soon. She contends that these boys are still capable of equally heinous acts. Both James's parents have been actively petitioning against Jon and Robert's impending release. Albert Kirby, who led the original investigation in the James Bulger murder, is also disgusted by the European Court's allegations that the boys weren't properly handled while in custody, or given a fair trial.

The Home Office is also changing laws to prohibit the boys from selling their story to publishers. Those eager to cash in on their story have already approached the boys and their families. (Currently, the Proceeds of Crime Act 1995, which was set up to prohibit criminals from profiting from their story, is set up for six years after conviction.)

When the boys are released, they will be issued new identities, verified by new birth certificates, passports, and other documentation. They will also receive police protection for as long as they request it. "There has not been this sort of fuss since Mary Bell," said a Home Office source.

Are they rehabilitated?

Little information is available on Jon Venables' or Robert Thompson's incarceration. According to David James Smith, who has received recent information on the boys, Robert had initially suffered from symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including rashes, illnesses, nightmares, and sleeplessness. He was frightened by his own notoriety, worried that photographers waited just around the corner in jail, or that new counselors would give him away to the media. He became afraid to leave his cell, and was harassed by other inmates. Predictably, he got into some fights, for which he was punished. Robert was slow to talk about what happened, and at one point said that he did not have any feelings. But in 1995, he seemed to have had a breakthrough. He talked about the murder, admitting to participating in killing James equally. He is now studying and may get an Open University degree. Robert has shown an interest in design and textiles. He had created an intricate wedding dress, with "the intention of creating an object of beauty," according to Smith. He has also developed talents in cooking, catering, and computers.

Jon Venables had suffered with his memories of the murder, and was tormented by ongoing nightmares of a brutalized James. Early on, he had "two difficult years," according to psychiatrists, when he re-enacted the murder. He repeatedly fantasized about bringing James back, and even wished he could "grow a new baby James inside him for rebirth," wrote Smith. Jon seems to have responded more favorably to therapy than Robert. His remorse and guilt will stay with him forever, he says, but the fact that he acknowledges his responsibility has helped him accept it. He now spends his time as an avid sports fan, and plays video games. Psychiatrists report that Jon is no longer a threat to the public.

Both Robert Thompson and Jon Venables can only remain in their current secure units until they turn 19 in 2001. At that point they must be moved to a young offenders' institute for two years, and then onto prison. But it remains to be seen if they will ever see prison. Retired Detective Albert Kirby hopes they spend some time in an adult prison for their crimes.

Robert and Jon have not spoken to each other since the day that they murdered James Bulger.


James Bulger (AP)
James Bulger (AP)

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