Back in 1993 there was a high-profile trial of two ten-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who abducted the two-year-old James Bulger from a Merseyside shopping centre and tortured and killed him. It was an horrific crime which aroused huge public anger and enormous press coverage. The two ten-year-olds were jailed on what was called life custody until they were of adult age.
Whether or not these ten-year-olds really understood the consequences of what they were doing, was hotly debated in the press amidst a clamor for all sorts of punishments. Because of the media coverage, and because there was no doubt of their guilt, it was difficult to find any jury that wasn't already heavily influenced by the reports.
Although arrested in February 1993, they were finally tried in late November in Preston and sentenced to be detained "at her Majesty's pleasure", which basically meant until they were judged to no longer present a danger to the public. The minimum sentence set was eight years meaning they could have been released at the age of eighteen. Straight after the trial though the Lord Chief Justice ruled that they should serve a minimum of ten years meaning they could be released in 2003.
Despite an attempt by the then home secretary, Michael Howard, to increase the sentence in response to the public anger, it was ruled illegal to have such political interference with the operation of the courts. The parents of James Bulger tried to claim a right to be involved in determining the sentence but this too was rejected by the European Court.
Now Venables is back in jail. He was released in 2003 with a new identity but on something called "life licence" which means he can be jailed again for an indefinite time if he is seen to be danger to the public or is in breach of his conditions of parole. Because of the anger and the massive coverage of the case, there would have been a serious likelihood that he would have been killed had he ever been released under his own name so both he and Thompson were given new identities.
But the very fact that the killers were given a new identity and a fresh start angered relatives of the Bulger family. There were continuing demands for retribution, for revenge, for making Venables and Thompson suffer, and there are plenty of people in a growing mob behind them. Now that Venables has been arrested again for breaching the terms of his parole in what is described as a "serious sex offence". The details have been withheld because it would prejudice the chances of a fair trial but it has been implied that there was no crime against a person.
The whole case has highlighted two major issues: that of retributive justice, and rehabilitation of offenders. There is no doubt that the two ten-year-olds who killed James Bulger were very disturbed youngsters and despite the press describing them at the time as "evil" and "monsters", many people find it difficult to accept that children so young could have been sufficiently aware of what they were doing to bear the culpability.
And anyone who has worked with children will know that they can change dramatically especially during their teen years and especially given help and direction.
Many people at the time considered Venables and Thompson as two deranged young children in need of psychiatric treatment. They were undeniably dangerous and needed to be confined for public safety but it was certainly not a case of locking them up and throwing away the key.
Those who adopted a more knee-jerk reaction were baying for blood, some public punishment which would satisfy the parents and relatives, and satisfy the press demands for heavy visible action against criminals. Already, another youngster who was wrongly identified at the time as having been a suspect was forced to leave town in fear of his life.
And now, James Bulger's mother is appearing on the radio and television demanding a say in how her son's killer should now be treated. But is that a reasonable path to take? Should the victims be deciding sentences, punishments, treatments? Surely, the very reason we insist that such trials be determined by juries is to isolate the victim from the judicial decision, preventing them exacting their own prejudiced revenge.
No doubt the media shares some responsibility for keeping the Bulger family in the frame, and despite claims that they want to "get on with their lives", there's a clear media circus making sure they continue to get lots of publicity and that they are continually invited to comment further.
The psychiatric treatment of these two young men is not known in the public domain, nor their new identities so if they have been rehabilitated, that's not for the newpapers and news channels to decide. But if the press manages to extract sufficient details to identify the new names for these young men, they will never have any chance to be rehabilitated. They will be tried again by press mob rule and in that case, it won't make any difference how different they are now compared to how they were at ten years of age.
Despite the anger and media clamor, justice has to rise above the idea of knee-jerk demands for punishment and retribution and everyone is entitled to a fair trial, even those already previously convicted of a murder. The press would do the family a favor if it left them alone, denied them a platform, and encouraged them to do what they say they want to do, get on with their lives.
And in turn, those baying for blood again would do well to ask themselves how responsible is the average ten-year-old, let alone one who has serious psychological and psychiatric problems. And how many of us would want to be judged today, over and over, for our actions at that age? The courts made their decision, passed their sentence, and the legal system is acting now to insist on the conditions of the parole. It's important that they should be allowed to do the job without mob rule and press interference trying to disclose their new identities.Powered by Sidelines