Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

The Trial

"The violent child is the most potent image of violated innocence that we have. If humankind is capable of this, then perhaps we are beyond redemption." — Ian McEwan

The Merseyside community was flabbergasted at the age of the suspects, but relieved that they had been charged. On Monday, reporters swarmed the school where Jon and Robert were students, trying to get pictures of the young suspects and to interview classmates. One child took Robert's chair and chanted, "I'm in the murderer's seat!" But not everyone was relieved. The Venables and Thompson families were forced to flee the angry mobs that gathered around their homes.

Prior to the trial, the Sun newspaper published a picture of Jon with a lollipop on his way to court, accompanied by an article, which berated the juveniles' "lush" lives behind bars. The public was infuriated that these suspects were being treated to such supposed luxuries.

Jon and Robert presumed false identities for their own safety. They were housed in special secure units, separate from one another, where they pretended to be older, and convicted of crimes other than the murder of James Bulger. Some argued that this encouraged the boys to suppress the truth about what happened. Neither Jon nor Robert would receive counseling before trial because it might affect their memories of the event. As it currently stood, both kids were in denial of the beatings and murder, each blaming the other for the most brutal acts. Only Jon's admission "I did kill him" indicated any kind of culpability for either boy.

England turns to the sensational case (AP)
England turns to the sensational
case (AP)
On May 14th, 1993, both Jon and Robert appeared at the Liverpool Crown Court to enter their pleas of "not guilty." The case would be tried in Preston, which was closer to the boys' secure units. Jon hyperventilated during the court hearing and could not participate in the police line-ups because he was too distraught. Both the prosecution and defense worried about his ability to participate in his own defense.

Jon's psychological profile

Police interviewed the parents of both boys. The Venables believed that Jon was a good kid, well behaved but sometimes hyperactive. Susan worried that Jon was the victim of bullies at school and insisted that this was the reason that Jon was moved from one school to another. At his new school, Susan believed that Jon befriended Robert Thompson because he felt sorry for him. But she worried that Robert was bullying Jon.

Jon's older brother Mark had speech and learning disabilities and was sent to a special school. He also exhibited an uncontrollable temper. Jon's younger sister, Michele, also became a special needs student. Jon was in the middle and perhaps jealous of the extra attention his siblings received. Jon's parents repeatedly split and reunited, which undermined his sense of security in the family. Jon exhibited low self-esteem and seemed defensive if anyone suggested his family was not ideal. It was as if he was working hard to hide something.

Dr. Susan Bailey, who examined Jon for the trial, believed that there were no organic disability or brain damage, which caused Jon's behavioral problems. She concluded that he was fit to stand trial. Psychological reports assured that Jon did not suffer from any severe mental illnesses, including depression or hallucinations. He was anxious, fidgety, and temperamentally fragile. Jon could be easily distressed and was unable to discuss the murder. (He did, however, report to his mother about flashbacks that haunted him, particularly disturbing images of blood spurting out of James's mouth. Jon also had rescue fantasies, dreaming that he saved James from harm and returned him safely to his mother.)

It was important to establish that Jon understood the permanence of death, which would affect his understanding of the severity of his crime. Jon said that death meant that people could not come back, and had an idea of heaven and hell as permanent places. In fact, he claimed to be scared of television violence. If there was a scene in a movie with "blood coming out," Jon said he'd turn away from the screen and put his fingers in his ears.

Psychiatrists were interested in Jon's intense relationship with his mother. If Jon had three magic wishes, they would be: 1) to be free from the secure unit; 2) to turn the world into chocolate factory, and 3) to live forever, with money, no accidents, or illnesses. If he could be anyone, he'd be Sylvester Stallone's character Rocky, or Sonic the Hedgehog, because he "ran fast and saved his friends."

Robert's psychological profile

Whereas Jon was unwilling to talk about the murder, Robert was at least willing to reenact his version. Psychiatrist Eileen Vizard met with Robert and brought some dolls that represented the primary characters in the crime. There was also a railroad track laid out and miniature weapons that were used in the assault. As Robert picked up the dolls and moved them through the motions of the murder, he demonstrated how the "Jon doll" senselessly beat the "James doll," while the "Robert doll" tried to stop the attack. Robert showed how he tried to pull Jon away and how they fell backwards in the struggle. But he couldn't explain how the "James doll" sustained any sexual damage. When the psychiatrist continued to ask about any sexual abuse, Robert became increasingly defensive and agitated. He was willing to reenact everything else, why not this? When the psychiatrist brought up the possibility that the entire attack was sexually motivated, Robert hardly reacted, as if he wasn't surprised. But he didn't deny or confirm the possibility.

How did Robert feel about James? Robert didn't have much to say, except that James was more quiet than his own baby brother Ben, and that James asked for his mother all of the time. Robert described how Jon didn't like babies, but that Robert did. He wished that he could kick Jon's face in. Go ahead, said the psychiatrist, referring to the dolls. Robert acted out one doll beating up on the other.

When Robert discussed his family with the psychiatrist, she found that Robert was defensive about his mother's drinking. He had a repetitive nightmare in which he was chasing someone, running into the street and then being struck by a car.

In the end, the psychiatrist reported that Robert was of above average intelligence, and exhibited no sign of mental illness or depression, but that he was currently displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

November 1, 1993: Trial begins

In order to allow the defendants to see above the railings, the Preston Crown Court built a special raised platform on which the two boys would sit during the trial. (It would later be argued that this extraordinary "displaying" of the defendants constituted an unfair trial.) Carpenters bolted down the chairs in public gallery so that no one could throw them. The hours of the trial approximated school day hours, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The boys would be tried together. Presiding Judge Sir Michael Morland ruled that the boys be known as Child A and Child B (Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, respectively.) Although the defendants were supposedly anonymous by name, everyone got a good look at them, and watched their behavior closely. On the raised platform sat Robert, heavier than before, and looking older than his now 11 years. He stared ahead, or up at the ceiling, kicked off his shoes, and yawned. He showed little emotion. Onlookers assumed Robert was the "guilty one." He had no family present and sat glumly next to his social worker, who showed little affection toward him. Like author Frank Jones, many believe that in cases where two children are involved, one is usually the ringleader, the other a more passive follower. Spectators were convinced that burly, unemotional Robert was the instigator of James Bulger's murder.

Jon, on the other hand, won some sympathy with court observers. He seemed more contrite, anxious, constantly looking back at his mother for her support. In his book "As If," Blake Morrison describes the sight of Jon and Robert on the platform: "I look at Jon, and he reminds me of a gerbil. A hamster, anyway: the bright, darting eyes; how, when he's upset, he beds down and disappears in the lapels of his jacket; his blinking at the noise and the light. Robert is squatter, porkier, more of a guinea pig, an aggressive one at times. Jon flicks him nervous glances, seeking reassurance; Robert ignores them, putting the squirt in his place. Jon seems to be in thrall of Robert."

The Bulger family attended each day, except for Denise, who was now seven months pregnant. She was, understandably, horribly upset, and her mourning had been disturbed by the incessant media attention.

Robert's defense attorney David Turner immediately suggested that a fair trial was impossible. Inflammatory papers called the boys evil, demonic, monsters, fiends. He also requested that two evidence photos of James's head injuries be removed because of their potential emotional effect on the jury. But the judge denied both requests. Jon's attorney, Brian Walsh, was more reserved in his requests.

The prosecution, led by Richard Henriques, presented their case, contending that both boys took part in James Bulger's death. Because both defendants were under the age of 14, the prosecution had to prove they knew that their actions were severely wrong. "You can properly be satisfied that each of them knew it was seriously wrong to take a young child from his mother, to try to do so, and to use such extreme violence on a child of such tender years." As the jury received files, which included photos of the crime, they were visibly moved. Jon's mother also began to cry and Jon leaned over the rail to see if she was all right.

The witnesses, or "The Liverpool 38" as the tabloids called them, took the stand, one by one, and confirmed the boys' route. Many changed their story from their original police statements, in response to the guilt that they had not done something to stop the deadly march. A cabby testified that he saw Jon jerk the boy up violently. One woman on the bus saw the two boys swinging James and made a comment to her daughter, according to her police statement. But in court she claimed she shouted at the sight of the boys and that the whole bus had turned to gawk. The elderly woman with the dog, who saw them at the reservoir, felt a lot of guilt for not helping and also changed her statement. While these passive witnesses may deserve some recrimination for not intervening, who could have known that the little boy was going to be killed by the older boys that held his hands as they walked? As Judge Morland later said, "many of the witnesses were doing the humdrum things of everyday life on that Friday afternoon when, wholly unawares, they were caught up in the last few tragic hours of James Bulger's tragic life."

Jon and Robert did not participate in trial — they did not take the stand and the court rarely addressed them. They were incapable of understanding the procedures. Denise Bulger, who didn't appear, had her statement read to the jury. They watched as the evidence clearly indicated their guilt: the Strand security videos, blood-splattered bricks, stones, clothing, a tin of blue paint, and a heavy bar. Forensic scientists gave assessments of James's injuries, which were so numerous, that they couldn't determine which one caused his death. One particular imprint on James's cheek was conclusively linked to Robert's bloody shoe, indicating that he was an indisputable participant.

"doli incapax"

Did the boys know the difference between right and wrong? This was an important issue for the prosecution. The Victorian concept of "doli incapax" was established to protect innocent (and ignorant) children from corporeal punishment. In an earlier era, wild street children were executed for their crimes. "Doli incapax" meant that children were incapable of wrongdoing because they cannot grasp the consequences of their actions. To this point, Jon and Robert's teachers testified. Psychiatrists took the stand, believing both defendants knew the severity of their crime. The court then played the recorded police interviews, which also revealed their understanding of the charges. Jon's hysterical, high-pitched crying affected many who heard it. It was at this point in the trial that the boys paid close attention. Each was interested in what the other had said and indignantly listened as they accused each other of the murder. Robert, who tried to appear cool and tough throughout the trial, was upset when he heard Jon claim that Robert was like a girl because he played with dolls. Jon sheepishly watched Robert's reactions when he accused him of beating James.

In the closing argument, the prosecution portrayed the boys as equally liable: "They preferred, you may think, to avoid detection, which was clearly a greater priority than James's well-being. Together they abused James. Robert Thompson delivered a persuasive kick, while Jon Venables chose to shake James. Venables led him from the Strand, with Thompson leading the way...At the tracks their roles reversed. Thompson carried him up on the railway embankment with Venables leading the way. They each heard each other lie to adults...if ever a crime was committed jointly and together, then this was that crime. They were clearly both together as James sustained his terrible injuries."

The defense countered: Neither of these boys had done anything violent before, only shoplifting and truancy. This was a mischievous prank gone out of control. If they had planned to kill a child, they could have drowned him at the canal, or thrown him in traffic, but they didn't. If the plan was to kill him at a railroad, why walk along one of the busiest stretches in Liverpool and converse with potential witnesses? They told adults they found the child — if they were set on killing him, why allow adults the opportunity to intervene? Robert's lawyer Turner argued that Jon and Robert were tired, unaware how to end their own prank, and did not know what to do with James. They were afraid of abandoning him or handing him over to a grown-up. Turner argued that it was Jon who was in control, and reminded the jury that Jon admitted, "I did kill him." Brian Walsh, Jon's defendant, said, "the two defendants are in fact very different boys." Walsh tried to summon sympathy for Jon by casting Robert as the bad one, which was easy for most to believe. Walsh claimed Jon admitted to some involvement, but he didn't want to kill James.

The judge then turned to the jury and said it wasn't an issue of whether Jon or Robert intended to kill James at the time of the abduction or while they walked. The question was, did Jon or Robert intend to murder James at the railway? After more precise instructions, the jury began deliberation on Wednesday, November 24, more than 3 weeks after the trial had begun.

The verdict

As he waited, Robert knit gloves for his baby brother and said he knew that they would find him guilty. The verdict came in that afternoon. For the first time, Denise set foot in the courtroom with her husband Roger by her side. As expected, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were found guilty. Jon sobbed while Robert sat motionless.

The Judge addressed the boys: "The killing of James Bulger was an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity. This child of two was taken from his mother on a journey of over two miles and then, on the railway line, was battered to death without mercy. Then his body was placed across the railway line so it would be run over by a train in an attempt to conceal his murder. In my judgment your conduct was both cunning and very wicked."

"This sentence that I pass upon you both is that you should be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure, in such a place and under such conditions as the Secretary of State may now decide. You will be securely detained for very, very many years, until the Home Secretary is satisfied that you have matured and are fully rehabilitated and until you are no longer a danger." The judge also allowed that the media be allowed to publish the boys' names.

From the gallery, someone shouted, "How do you feel now, you little bastards?"