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Bulger killers: Was justice done?

Surveillance video shows James Bulger being led away from his mother  

By CNN's Margaret Lowrie

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Surveillance video captured the pictures that horrified a nation -- two schoolboys luring 2-year-old James Bulger away from his mother at a Liverpool shopping mall.

The boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were just 10 years old themselves in 1993.

They were children killing children -- brutally. They tried to drown James Bulger, then beat him to death with rocks and bricks and an iron rod, leaving his body to be cut in half by a train.

The trial judge called it "unparalleled evil and barbarity" and gave them an indefinite sentence.

British Parliament Member Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, imposed a 15-year minimum on the amount of time they should spend behind bars.

bush The James Bulger Case
  • Case overview
  • Killers' new lives
  • Internet threat
  • Memories of horror
  • Killers and victims
  • Blunkett statement
  • Timeline of events
  From TIME
  • Killer boys grow up
  • Photo essay

  Court rulings
  • 1997: House of Lords
  • 1999: European Court
  • 2000: Lord Chief Justice

  Related sites
  • Justice for James
  • UK Parole Board

  News archive
  • Pleas for restraint
  • Press breach probed
  • Reformers welcome move
  • Parents' fury at release
  • Freedom for killers
  • Killers face hurdle
  • Anger at decision
  • Sentence review due
  • European court ruling


"If a murder of this kind, this terrible kind, had been committed by adults, they would have served, in my view, at least 25 years in prison," Howard said. "Now obviously you have to make an allowance for the fact that those who committed this particular murder were young. And that was the sort of consideration that led me to the view that 15 years was the appropriate time."

The public, outraged by the crime, supported him. But a few years later, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Howard had overstepped his remit. That decision cleared the way last fall for a senior British judge to, in effect, rule the boys should be released at 18.

Subsequently, another judge ruled they should be given new identities upon their release to protect them.

James Bulger's parents, now divorced, challenged both decisions -- unsuccessfully. "Despite what the government says, the views of the victims appear to count for nothing. ... If there is any such thing as a living hell, I and my family live it daily. I will continue to fight on for justice for James, that's all I've ever wanted," said James' mother, Denise Fergus, through a spokesman, Norman Brennan of the Victims of Crime Trust.

Caroline Hamilton of the Children's Legal Centre  

Some say the fact that Thompson and Venables were so young when they committed their crime bodes well for their rehabilitation.

"There's a huge difference between a child of 10 and a child of 18. And the views taken in the U.N. convention on the rights of the child and in the U.N. minimum standards and norms on juvenile justice, the children should be kept in custody for the shortest possible time. The idea behind it is that children, perhaps unlike adults, can really change during their time in custody," said Caroline Hamilton of the Children's Legal Centre.

She says Thompson and Venables have received a lot of help to make that happen.

"They've received good psychiatric care. We know that they've received education and I presume the parole board, all those that have been dealing with them, would not allow these children to go back into the community unless they thought they presented no further risk," said Hamilton.

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard  

Others say there needs to be more balance between rehabilitation and punishment.

Asked if Thompson and Venables should be freed, Howard said: "Not at this stage. I think this is too soon, I don't think they have spent enough time in custody to reflect the particular horror of the circumstances of this crime."

Whether or not justice has been served, they are now free, relocated with new identities. What they do next, what their future holds, the public likely will never know -- their very names having been consigned to the past along with the murder of James Bulger.

• UK Parole Board
• Lord Chief Justice's Recommendations on Sentences

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