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The murder of James Bulger is a case concerning the abduction and murder of James Bulger, a child from Kirkbymarker, Englandmarker, in 1993. His killers were two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson (both born in August 1982).

James disappeared from the New Strand Shopping Centremarker, Bootlemarker, where he had been with his mother Denise, on 12 February 1993 and his mutilated body was found on a railway line in nearby Waltonmarker on 14 February. Thompson and Venables, both aged 10, were charged with James's abduction and murder on 20 February and remanded in custody. They were charged with abducting another child on the following day.

The two boys, by then aged 11, were found guilty of Bulger's murder at Prestonmarker Crown Court on 24 November 1993, the youngest people to be convicted of murder in English criminal history. The trial judge sentenced them to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, with a recommendation that they should be kept in custody for "very, very many years to come", recommending a minimum term of 8 years. Shortly after the trial, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, ordered that the two boys should serve a minimum of ten years, which would have made them eligible for release in February 2003 at the age of twenty.

The popular press felt the sentence was too lenient, and the editors of The Sun newspaper handed a petition bearing 300,000 signatures to Home Secretary Michael Howard, in a bid to increase the time spent by both boys in custody. This campaign was successful, and in 1995 Howard announced that the boys would be kept in custody for a minimum of fifteen years, meaning that they would not be considered for release until February 2008, by which time they would be twenty-five years of age.

In 1997, the Court of Appealmarker ruled that Howard's decision to set a fifteen-year tariff was unlawful, and the Home Secretary lost his power to set minimum terms for life-sentence prisoners under eighteen-years of age. The High Courtmarker and European Court of Human Rightsmarker have since ruled that, though the parliament may set minimum and maximum terms for individual categories of crime, it is the responsibility of the trial judge, with the benefit of all the evidence and argument from both prosecution and defense council, to determine the minimum term in individual criminal cases.

Thompson and Venables were released on a life licence in June 2001, after serving eight years, when a parole hearing concluded that public safety would not be threatened by their rehabilitation. An injunction was imposed after the trial preventing the publication of details about the boys, for fear of reprisals. The injunction remained in force following their release, so their new identities and locations could not be published.

The murder

Evidence found on CCTV at the Strand Shopping Centremarker in Bootlemarker showed the kidnappers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson casually observing children, selecting a target. The boys should have been at school, but they were playing truant. Throughout the day Venables and Thompson were seen stealing various items including sweets, a troll doll, some batteries and a can of blue paint some of which were found at the murder scene.

Before the abduction in the shopping centre, the boys had attempted to walk off with another child. They were overheard in a store talking about "taking one of the two" and the mother of the two children thought they were attempting to steal some goods. It was later revealed by one of the boys that they were planning to take one of the two children, lead them outside and push the child in front of the passing cars causing an accident on the busy road. One officer commented that Bulger's killing was not simply an opportunist crime: it had been systematically planned. "They knew exactly what they were doing. They had planned... from the outset... to go and kill a young boy."

CCTV still of James Bulger being kidnapped by Venables and Thompson (above Bulger), recorded on shopping centre CCTV
That same afternoon, James Bulger (often mentioned as "Jamie Bulger" in press reports, although never called "Jamie" by his family), from nearby Kirkbymarker, went with his mother Denise to a nearby shopping centre. He was approximate 2½ feet tall, with fair skin, blue eyes, and light-brown hair. While inside a shop, Mrs. Bulger realised her son had disappeared. He had wandered out of the shop on his own and was spotted by the two boys. They approached him, spoke to him and won his confidence, before taking him by the hand and leading him out of the precinct. This moment was captured on a CCTV camera at 15:39 (this reference states the time as 15:42)/>

The boys took Bulger on a walk, leading him to a canal where he sustained injuries to his head and face. During the walk, the boys were seen by 38 people./> Bulger was clearly distressed, but most bystanders did nothing to intervene. Two people challenged the older boys, but they claimed that James was a younger brother or that he was lost and they were taking him to the local police station./> Eventually the boys led Bulger to a railway line near the disused Walton & Anfield railway stationmarker, close to Walton Lane police station and Anfield cemetery, where they attacked him.

Facts established at trial show that, at this location, one of the boys threw blue modelling paint on Bulger's face. They kicked him and hit him with bricks, stones and a iron bar.
They then placed batteries in his mouth. James suffered skull fractures as a result of the iron bar striking his head. However, Dr Alan Williams, the case's pathologist, speculated that James suffered so many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow.

Before they left him, the boys laid Bulger across the railway tracks and weighted his head down with rubble, in hopes that a train would hit him and make his death appear an accident. After Bulger's killers left the scene, his body was cut in half by a train. Bulger's severed body was discovered two days later, on 14 February. A forensic pathologist testified that he had died before he was struck by the train.

The police quickly found low-resolution video images of Bulger's abduction from the Strand Shopping Centre by two unidentified boys. As the circumstances surrounding the death became clear, tabloid newspapers denounced the people who had seen Bulger, but had not intervened to aid Bulger as he was being brutally pushed through the city, as the "Liverpool 38". The railway embankment upon which his body had been discovered was flooded with hundreds of bunches of flowers.

This crime created great anger in Liverpool. The family of one boy who was detained for questioning, but subsequently released, had to flee the city. The breakthrough came when a woman, on seeing slightly enhanced images of the two boys on national television, believed she recognised them as two local tearaways. She contacted police and two suspects were arrested. That the boys were so young came as a shock to investigating officers, headed by DS Albert Kirby of the Merseyside Police. Early press reports and police statements had referred to Bulger being seen with "two youths" (suggesting that the killers were teenagers), the ages of the boys being difficult to ascertain from the opaque images captured by CCTV.

Thompson and Venables blamed each another for the murder, but police identified Thompson as the leading figure, and spoke of his apparent total lack of remorse for the crime they were charging him with. Forensics tests also confirmed that both boys had the same blue paint on their clothing as found on Bulger's body. Both had blood on their shoes; blood on Thompson's shoe was matched to Bulger through DNA tests.

The boys were charged with Bulger's murder on 20 February 1993, and appeared at South Sefton Youth Court on 22 February 1993, when they were remanded in custody to await trial. .

Trial and sentencing

Venables and Thompson at the time of their arrest
In the aftermath of their arrest, and throughout the media accounts of their trial, the boys were referred to as 'Child A' (Venables) and 'Child B' (Thompson). At the close of the trial, the judge ruled their names should be released (because of the nature of the murder and the public reaction), and they were identified along with lengthy descriptions of their lives and backgrounds. Public shock was compounded by the release, after the trial, of mug shots taken during questioning by police. The pictures showed frightened children, and many found it hard to believe such a crime had been perpetrated by two people so young.

Five hundred protesters gathered at South Sefton Magistrates' Court during the boys' initial court appearances. The parents of the accused were moved to different parts of the country and assumed new identities following death threats from vigilantes.

The full trial opened at Prestonmarker Crown Court on 1 November 1993, conducted as an adult trial with the accused in the dock away from their parents, and the judge and court officials in legal regalia. Each boy sat in view of the court on raised chairs (so they could see out of the dock designed for adults) accompanied by two social workers. Although they were separated from their parents, they were within touching distance when their families attended the trial. News stories reported the demeanour of the defendants. These aspects were later criticised by the European Court of Human Rightsmarker, which ruled in 1999 that they had not received a fair trial by being tried in public in an adult court.

The boys, who did not testify in their defence, were found guilty on 24 November and sentenced to imprisonment at a young offenders' institution at Her Majesty's Pleasure. The judge, Mr Justice Michael Morland, recommended a minimum term of 8 years detention.

The case led to public anguish, and concern at moral decay in Britain. Tony Blair, then shadow Home Secretary, gave a speech in Wellingborough on 19 February, saying that "We hear of crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions … These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name." Prime Minister John Major said that "society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less". Some blame was pointed as "video nasties", such as Child's Play 3, and censorship rules were strengthened in 1994.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, later ruled that the pair should serve at least 10 years in custody. Following a public campaign, this was increased in 1994 to 15 years by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, "acting in the public interest". Lord Donaldson decried this political intervention, describing the increased tariff as "institutionalised vengeance ... [by] a politician playing to the gallery". The increased minimum term was overturned in 1997 by the House of Lordsmarker, who ruled that it was "unlawful" for the Home Secretary to decide on minimum sentences for offenders aged under 18./>

In October 2000, Lord Chief Justice Harry Woolf reduced their minimum sentence by two years in recognition of their good behaviour and remorse shown in detention, restoring the original trial judge's eight-year recommended minimum.

Appeal and release

In 1999, lawyers for Venables and Thompson appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that the boys' trial had not been impartial, since they were too young to follow proceedings and understand an adult court. The European Court dismissed their claim that the trial was inhuman and degrading treatment, but upheld their claim they were denied a fair hearing by the nature of the court proceedings. The European Court also held that Howard's intervention led to a charged atmosphere, making a fair trial impossible.

The same year, Bulger's parents applied to European Court of Human Rights, but failed to persuade the Court that a victim of a crime has the right to be involved in determining the sentence of the perpetrator.

The European Court case led to the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, reviewing the minimum sentence. In October 2000, he recommended the tariff be reduced from ten to eight years, adding that young offenders' institutions were a 'corrosive atmosphere' for the juveniles.

In June 2001, after a six-month review, the parole board ruled the boys were no longer a threat to public safety and could be released as their minimum tariff had expired in the February of that year. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, approved the decision, and they were released within weeks. They were given new identities and moved to secret locations under a "witness protection"-style action. They will live on a "life licence", which allows their immediate re-incarceration for an unlimited time if they are seen to be a danger to the public. As part of their conditions, they were required to end contact with each other.

Subsequent controversies

The Manchester Evening News named the secure institutions in which the pair were housed, in possible breach of the injunction against publicity which had been renewed early in 2001. In December that year, the paper was fined £30,000 for contempt of court and ordered to pay costs of £120,000.

The Guardian revealed that both boys had passed A-levels during their sentences. The paper also told how the Bulger family’s lawyers had consulted psychiatric experts in order to present the parole panel with a report which suggested that Thompson is an undiagnosed psychopath, citing his lack of remorse during his trial and arrest. The report was ultimately dismissed. However, his lack of remorse at the time, in stark contrast to Venables, led to considerable scrutiny from the parole panel. Upon release, both Thompson and Venables had lost all trace of their Scouse accents.

No significant publication or vigilante action against Thompson or Venables has yet occurred. Despite this, Bulger's mother, Denise, told how in 2004 she received a tip-off from an anonymous source that helped her locate Thompson. Upon seeing him, she was 'paralysed with hatred' and was unable to confront him.

In 2007, it was confirmed that the Home Office had spent £13,000 on an injunction preventing a non-UK magazine from revealing the new identities of Thompson and Venables.

In June 2007, a computer game based on the TV series Law & Order, titled Law & Order: Double or Nothing (made in 2003), was withdrawn from stores in the UK following reports that it contained an image of Bulger. The image in question is the CCTV frame of Bulger being led away by his killers, Venables and Thompson. The scene in the game involves a CGI detective pointing out the picture and then asking the player to investigate the kidnapping. Bulger's family complained, along with many others, and the game was subsequently withdrawn by its UK distributor, GSP. The game’s developer, Legacy Interactive (an American company), released a statement in which it apologised for the image's inclusion in the game; according to the statement, the image’s use was 'inadvertent' and took place 'without any knowledge of the crime, which occurred in the UK and was minimally publicised in the United States'.

In August 2009 the Seven Network used real footage of the abduction to promote its police show City Homicide. The use of the footage was criticized by James's mother and Seven apologised. A tie in with this saw the Sunrise anchors asking the rhetorical question of whether the killers were now living in Australia. When the question was answered on the 24 August 2009 edition, they used one minute and seven seconds to relate the government's two line denial that they had been settled in the country.

2008 memorial appeal

On 14 March 2008 an appeal to set up a Red Balloon Learner Centre in Merseyside in memory of James Bulger was launched by Denise Fergus, his mother, and Esther Rantzen.

A documentary about the murder was broadcast on December 11, 2008 on ITV1.

A memorial garden in Bulger's memory was created in Sacred Heart Primary School in Kirkby. He would have been expected to attend this school if he had not been murdered.

Art and popular culture

In 2008, Swedish playwright Niklas Rådström used the interview transcripts from interrogations with the murderers and their families to recreate the story. His play, Monsters, opened to mixed reviews at the Arcola Theatremarker in Londonmarker in May, 2009.

The Law & Order Season 10 episode entitled "Killerz" is partialy based on some aspects of the James Bulger murder, as well as the Mary Bell case.

See also

  • Boy A, a 2004 novel later adapted as a film that details the release and attempted re-integration into society of a British child criminal.
  • Mary Bell


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