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British toddler's killers eligible for release next year

The murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 shocked the nation  

Britain's law chief has ruled that the killers of British toddler James Bulger will be eligible for release early next year.

In a special open court hearing on Thursday, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, said Jon Venables and Robert Thompson would be eligible for parole after serving an eight-year minimum sentence -- the time they will have served by February next year.

Venables and Thompson were aged 10 in 1993 when they were convicted of killing the Merseyside toddler.

The pair will only be released after satisfying parole board criteria, including psychological examinations, but appear unlikely to ever serve time in the adult prison system.

"The two boys have made striking progress in the secure unit in which they have been detained," Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf told a packed courtroom in London.

The nation was shocked when video footage from a Bootle shopping centre showed the pair luring James from his mother before they took him away and battered him to death next to a railway line.

They were sentenced to an undetermined prison term with a minimum 10 years to serve.

The then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, extended this to 15 years, but that decision was overturned by the House of Lords, which set no minimum term.

'Tariff was woeful'

Lord Woolf was given the task of reviewing the killers' minimum sentence after the European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that the fixing of tariffs for juvenile killers by the Home Secretary was a breach of the European Human Rights Convention and only a court could decide.

Former Detective Superintendent on the original case in 1993, Albert Kirby, said he was "flabbergasted at the leniency of the sentence."

"I always thought the original tariff of eight years was woeful and the most realistic sentence was 15 years given the severity and premeditation of the attack," said Kirby.

The pair -- now aged 18 -- have been held in different secure units but would be transferred to the prison system if still in jail at 19.

James' mother Denise was inside a butcher's shop when she let go of the toddler's hand to purchase some meat and he wandered off.

Thirty-eight people spotted the pair -- with some seeking to intervene -- as they walked with the crying toddler to the isolated railway line where his battered body was later found.

Because of the severity of their crimes Thompson and Venables were tried in an adult court - with some special measures in recognition of their youth such as a raised dock and shorter hearing hours.

But the European Commission of Human Rights ruled that the boys were unfairly treated as the proceedings were "severely intimidatory."

Reuters contributed to this report.



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