Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger


With their conviction in 1993 for the abduction and murder of 3-year-old James Bulger, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson became the youngest convicted murderers in Britain for almost 250 years. They were originally sentenced to detention at "Her Majesty's pleasure" and were not to be released for at least 20 years. After sentencing, the boys were housed in separate secret locations somewhere in the north of England and were expected to stay there until they turned eighteen when they would be transferred to an adult facility to serve out their time. However, when the European Court of Human Rights decreed in December 1999 that the boys had not received a fair trial and awarded costs and expenses of £15,000 to Robert Thompson and £29,000 to Jon Venables, the plan changed.

The following March, British newspaper The Observer ran the announcement by Jack Straw, Britain's Home Secretary, that Thompson and Venables would be freed by 2003. Straw's decision was based on the European Court of Human Rights ruling that Michael Howard, Home Secretary at the time of the boys sentencing, had "acted illegally when fixing a 15-year sentence for them."

According to the report filed on March 12, 2000, the Home Secretary "had the option of referring the case to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, for a full review, because of the long-standing confusion over serious child crimes and the open-ended sentences imposed."

Also detailed were two other options: "to accept the original sentence of eight years set by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Morland, which would have meant the boys walking free next year [2001], or the 10-year tariff imposed later by the then Lord Chief Justice after a campaign by James Bulger's parents. He opted for the latter."

The Observer also suggested that the decision could have far-reaching consequences as it could mean future cases of a similar nature would not be tried in an adult court.

On Thursday October 26, 2000, the Guardian reported that Lord Woolf, the British lord chief justice, had cut the minimum sentences of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables "effectively granting them their freedom early next year [2001] subject to a parole board decision."

According to the report, Lord Woolf said: "Because of their behaviour they are entitled to a reduction in the tariff (the minimum term for punishment and deterrence) to eight years, which happens to be the figure determined by the trial judge.

"An eight-year tariff would expire on the 21st February 2001. I have already pointed out that it would not be in their or the public's interest for these two young men to be transferred to a young offenders institution."

He added, "However grave their crime, the fact remains that if that crime had been committed a few months earlier, when they were under 10, the boys could not have been tried or punished by the courts."

On Tuesday November 14, 2000, the Guardian followed up with a report that described how Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were at "real risk of reprisals which could threaten their lives if their whereabouts and new identities are revealed" and applied for "unprecedented lifetime injunctions preventing the media from disclosing information which would identify them."

Their applications were based on comments by Ralph Bulger, James's father, who had vowed to "hunt his son's killers down." Edward Fitzgerald QC, council for Venables stated, "taken in context, it is abundantly clear what he intends to do when he hunts them down." They also cited a "declared intention by the media to 'out' the pair."

In answer, Ralph Bulger told reporters: "James had the right to live, the right to grow old, to love and be loved and to have children of his own. But they took his rights away from him and so they should have no rights at all, never mind the right to privacy or the right to hide away."

The injunction was sought under the Human Rights Act, which came into force in October 2000 and, according to Fitzgerald, "was justified to protect their right to life and to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, which could be threatened by revenge attacks."

He also asked that the injunction "ban anyone publishing anything about the boys' whereabouts or their assumed identities when they are released. Disclosure of that information would expose him (Venables) and his co-detainee to serious physical risk and serious psychological fear and the likelihood of harassment. It is necessary to protect his right to life and freedom from persecution."

The Guardian also reported that the application "was backed by the attorney general, in his role as guardian of the public interest. The home secretary and the official solicitor also support the application for a media ban, which is opposed by three newspaper groups."

The report described the president of the high court's family division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, as saying "she hoped to decide before Christmas [2000] whether to grant the ban."

Four days later, James Bulger's mother Denise Fergus held a press conference and told reporters that "I feel let down and betrayed by the system. The only shred of hope I have is that Dame Elizabeth turns down the application for Robert Thompson and Jon Venables to be given anonymity for the rest of their lives. As children one can understand them being given some protection but what right have they got to be given special treatment as adults as well?"

"For seven years the system persuaded me to rely on the criminal justice procedures and to remain silent although all this time I feared the worst.

"Venables and Thompson have dragged me, my family, and the name of James through every court possible in this country and Europe for which unlimited funds have been made available to them. This is in complete contrast to the help made available to victims of crime. The European court of human rights has become a friend of criminals and enemy of their victims".

In January, 2001, the injunction application was approved and Venables and Thompson were granted a lifetime of immunity from exposure, to "protect them as they adjust to life outside."

On Friday June 22, 2001, the British home secretary, David Blunkett, confirmed that the parole board had approved the release of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. In a special report published the same day, the Guardian reported the story including the furor that greeted the announcement.

In a statement to the press, Norman Brennan, a spokesman for Denise Fergus said:

"Denise is absolutely devastated and stunned. There has to be a punishment element for such a crime but all Denise sees is Venables and Thompson being rewarded. It has never been about revenge, it's just about a justice denied. Denise points the finger directly at the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, as being the head of the liberal elite, who has basically sent a message that crime pays.

Venables and Thompson are being released back to their families, who themselves could only dream of the living conditions they will now enjoy. If they had given their children love and support, as they should have done nine years ago, James would never have been murdered."

Former home secretary, Michael Howard also stated: "I very much regret this decision. It may well be that the parole board had no alternative but I think Lord Woolf was wrong to decide that eight years was sufficient time for Thompson and Venables to spend in custody in the light of the uniquely dreadful circumstances of their crime."

The next day the Guardian followed up with a report that the safety of Venables and Thompson was already in doubt after the Manchester Evening News "appeared to have breached the injunction banning information which might identify their whereabouts." The report also reported the attorney general reiterating the high court injunction and was considering contempt proceedings against the paper.

The following week the Guardian ran a story quoting Denise Fergus as saying: "No matter where they go, someone out there is waiting."

A week later in her first TV interview since the decision to release her son's killers, Denise Fergus told ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald that she was "frightened an innocent person might be mistaken for his killers. Right now I think they are still dangerous, and the saying goes 'once a murderer always a murderer'. I'm not going to hunt them down, try and kill them, but if it happens then I can't stop it. If you opened a paper or heard on the news someone had attacked them - I wouldn't feel sorry for them.

"What I'm frightened of is someone innocent getting mistaken for them and I do fear that. Now I don't want anyone else under mistaken identity to be hurt or worse. So what I'd say is be sure. Don't think or assume, be sure."

The Guardian also reported that the authorities held real fears for the safety of Thompson and Venables after threats were made to post recent photographs of the pair on the Internet.

On July 2, 2001, the BBC's Panorama program reported that Robert Thompson's family is in hiding after Robert's mother Ann was attacked and threatened, prompting fears for her younger children's safety. In a letter sent through her solicitor, Mrs. Thompson said she was "effectively in hiding, unable to live anything like a normal life because of the constant and real fear of revenge attacks."

According to the program's report, she admitted that her son had committed "a terrible crime" but her innocent younger children were being denied a proper education because of having to abandon their homes and belongings to escape attacks.

The letter also pleaded for an end to threats to find and kill her son, adding, "Two appalling wrongs do not make a right."