Murder of James Bulger

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For the American wanted by the FBI for murder, see James J. Bulger.

James Bulger (March 16, 1990February 12, 1993) was a toddler who was abducted and murdered by two ten year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, on Merseyside, in the United Kingdom. The murder of a child by two other children caused an immense public outpouring of shock, outrage and grief, particularly in Liverpool and surrounding towns.

At the boys' trial in November 1993 they received a minimum term of eight years detention, which was increased to ten years on appeal. Over 300,000 people signed a petition organised by a national newspaper which demanded that the British Home Secretary Michael Howard impose a lengthier sentence. Reacting to this public outcry, Howard duly increased their sentences to a minimum of fifteen years, though this was later reversed as unlawful.

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 The injunction remained in force following their release so that details of their new identities and locations could not be published.

The murder

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had skipped school on February 12, 1993. That day, in Bootle Strand Shopping Centre, they attempted to walk off with a young child. They had succeeded in luring a two year old boy away from his mother, and were in the process of taking him out of the shopping centre when she noticed him missing, ran outside and called him back. For this they were later charged with attempted abduction, however the charge was dropped when the jury failed to reach a verdict.

Bulger being led away by Venables and Thompson, recorded on shopping centre CCTV

That same afternoon, James Bulger (often called Jamie Bulger in press reports) from nearby Kirkby had gone on a shopping trip, with his mother Denise. Whilst distracted in a butcher's shop, Mrs Bulger (now Denise Fergus) had allowed James to stand outside in the main concourse of the shopping centre. Within a few minutes, the two boys had taken James by the hand and led him out of the precinct. This moment was captured on a CCTV camera at 15:39.

The youngsters took Bulger on a two-and-a-half-mile walk. At one point they led him to a canal, where James sustained some injuries to his head and face, after apparently being dropped to the ground. Later on in their journey, a witness reported seeing James being kicked in the ribs by one of the boys to encourage him along.

During the entire walk the two boys and James were seen by 38 people, some of whom noticed an injury to the infant's head and later recalled that he seemed distressed. Others reported that James appeared happy and was seen laughing, the boys seemingly alternating between hurting and distracting him. A few members of the public challenged the two older boys but they claimed that they were looking after their younger brother, or that he was lost and that they were taking him to the police station, and were allowed to continue on their way. They eventually led Bulger to a section of railway line near Walton.

At this location, one of the boys threw blue modelling paint on James's face. They kicked him and hit him with bricks, stones and a 22lb (10kg) iron bar. Before they left him, the boys laid James across the train tracks and weighed his head down with rubble. Two days later, on Sunday of the same week, Bulger's body was discovered. A pathologist later testified that James had died before his body was run over by a goods train.

As the circumstances surrounding the death became clear, tabloid newspapers compared the killers with Myra Hindley and Saddam Hussein. They denounced the people who had seen Bulger but not realised the trouble he was in as the "Liverpool 38" (see: Kitty Genovese, Bystander effect). Within days, the Liverpool Echo had published 1086 death notices for Bulger. The railside embankment upon which James' body had been discovered was flooded with hundreds of bunches of flowers: One of these floral tributes was laid by Robert Thompson. Within days, he and Venables were arrested.

Forensics tests confirmed that both boys had the same blue paint on their clothing as was found on James's body. Both had blood on their shoes; blood on Jon Venables's shoe was matched to James's through DNA tests.

The trial

Venables and Thompson at the time of their arrest

In the initial aftermath of their arrest the boys were referred to simply as Child A (Thompson) and Child B (Venables). However, the widely publicised nature of the murder made it inevitable that their names would become known. Public shock at the murder was compounded by the release of mug shots taken during initial questioning by police. The pictures showed a pair of frightened children; and many found it hard to believe that such a crime had been perpetrated by two people so young.

Five hundred angry protesters gathered at South Sefton Magistrates Court during the boys' initial court appearances. The accused's parents were moved to different parts of the country and had to assume new identities following a series of death threats.

The full trial took place at Preston Crown Court. The trial was conducted as an adult trial would have been, with the accused sitting in the dock away from their parents and with the judge and court officials dressed in full legal regalia. Each boy sat in full view of the court on raised chairs (so that they could see out of the dock which was designed for adults) accompanied by two social workers. Although they were separated from their parents, they were within touching distance of them on days that their families attended the trial. News stories frequently reported on the demeanour of the defendants since they were in full view of reporters. (These aspects of the trial were later criticised by the European Court of Human Rights who ruled that they had not received a fair trial.)

The boys, who offered no evidence in their defence, were found guilty and were sentenced to imprisonment at a young offenders institution at "Her Majesty's Pleasure" - a British legal term meaning an indefinite period, reviewed by the Government from time to time that is particularly used as a substitute for life sentencing for minors. The trial judge Justice Morland set their minimum period of incarceration to eight years. This was increased on appeal by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, to ten years and later by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to fifteen years on the grounds that he was "acting in the public interest". This decision was widely criticised as Howard appeared to be trying to make a political gain from his role in the judicial process: it was overturned in 1997 by the Law Lords. In October 2000, Lord Chief Justice Woolf reduced their minimum sentence by two years for their behaviour in detention, effectively restoring the original trial judge's eight year term.

Proposed causes

Video violence?

One aspect of the case that gained much media attention was whether Venables and Thompson had been watching violent films in the days and months prior to the murder, and whether or not those movies had contributed to making the pair act in the way they did. The judge mentioned that one of their fathers possessed a large collection of violent videos and that they probably had access to them whilst playing truant from school. The Sun newspaper explicitly named Child's Play 3 as a movie they had seen, and printed a full front-page picture of the menacing Chucky, the child-killing doll of that horror series. However, no evidence that the boys had watched such movies was formally presented to the jury, but the case gave rise to a national debate about the acceptability of violent media. Although no films were subsequently banned by the British Board of Film Classification, several video rental chains voluntarily stopped stocking Child's Play 3 and other titles listed by The Sun.

In early 1994, David Alton, a local Liberal MP and long-time campaigner against violent movies, commissioned Professor Elizabeth Newson to report on Video Violence and the Protection of Children, in order to bolster his case for an amendment to the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill. Her report, which consisted primarily of a review of similar studies from around the world, stated that there was a strong link between video violence and real world violence, and that although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, she believed that there was causation in this case. [1] The report's method came under fierce criticism from those opposed to Alton's amendment (see e.g. J. McGuigan, Culture and the Public Sphere).

Social and family background?

Other media commentators blamed the behaviour of Venables and Thompson on their families, or on their social situation, living in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. The Liverpool Echo described the city at the time of the murder as "a wounded city... The region's economy was on its knees, and unemployment was soaring". A 2001 OFSTED report on Liverpool's schools said that "the city of Liverpool has the highest degree of deprivation in the country".

Following the murder, the boys' mothers - Susan Venables and Ann Thompson - were repeatedly attacked in the street, and vilified in the press.

Thompson's father had abandoned his wife and children five years previously, one week before the family home was burned down in an accidental fire. Ann Thompson was a heavy drinker, who found it difficult to control her seven children. Notes (obtained by author Blake Morrison) from an NSPCC case conference on the family described it as "appalling". The children "bit, hammered, battered, tortured each other". Incidents in the report include Philip (the third child) threatening his older brother Ian with a knife. Ian asked to be taken into foster care, and when he was returned to his family he attempted suicide with an overdose of painkillers. Both Ann and Philip had also attempted suicide in the past.

Jon Venables's family was less chaotic; although his parents were also separated, they lived near to each other, and he lived at his father's house two days a week. Both his older brother and his younger sister had learning disabilities which were severe enough to make it necessary that they attend special schools (for children too disabled to be taught in the mainstream system). Jon himself was hyperactive, and had attempted to throttle another boy in a fight at school. The police had been called to Susan Venables's house in 1987, when she had left her children (then aged 3, 5 and 7) alone in the house for 3 hours. Case notes from that incident describe Susan's "severe depressive problem" and suicidal tendencies.

Multiple causes?

Another report on children and video violence was published in 1998; it was commissioned by the Home Office in 1995 in response to fears raised by Bulger's murder. The authors, Dr Kevin Browne and Amanda Pennell of Birmingham University, emphasised the link between a violent home background and offending:

Our research cannot prove whether video violence causes crime. But it does highlight the importance of family background and the offender's own personality and thoughts in determining the effects of film violence.

The research points to a pathway from having a violent home background, to being an offender, to be being more likely to prefer violent films and violent actors. Distorted perceptions about violent behaviour, poor empathy for others and low moral development all enhance the adoption of violent behaviour and violent film preferences. [2]

Appeal and release

In 1999 lawyers acting for Venables and Thompson appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the boys' trial had not been impartial since they were too young to be able to follow the proceedings and understand the workings of an adult court. They also claimed that Howard's intervention led to a "charged atmosphere", making a fair trial impossible. The Court found in the boys' favour.

The European Court case led to the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Woolf, reviewing the minimum sentence imposed. In October 2000 he recommended that 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 of the case, the Parole Board ruled that the boys were no longer a threat to public safety and were thus eligible for release now that the minimum tariff had expired. The decision was approved by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and they were both released that summer. They will live out their lives on a "life licence" which allows for their immediate re-incarceration if they break the terms of their release, that is if they are seen to be a danger to the public.

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

The injunction against the press reporting on the boys' whereabouts applies only in England and Wales, and newspapers in Scotland or other countries can legally publish such information. With easy cross-border communications due to the internet, many expected their identities and whereabouts to quickly become public knowledge. Indeed in June 2001, Venables' mother was quoted by the News of the World as saying that she expected her son to be "dead within four weeks" of release. Her lawyers lodged a formal complaint with the Press Complaints Commission saying that Mrs Venables had said no such thing. By that time however, the phrase had been widely re-reported. As of 2023, no publication of their new identites or vigilante action has come to pass.

Similar events

External links

Video violence