Should the murderers of James Bulger receive life-long protection from media exposure after their release?
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Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 02
On January 8, 2001, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the British High Court, Family Division, placed an injunction on the media, prohibiting the publication of details of the new identities Jon Venables and Richard Thompson would assume when they were released from detention in February 2001.
This ruling caused immediate controversy. It compounded the popular disapproval that greeted the ruling, in October 2000, that Venables and Thompson were eligible for parole after having been detained for eight years. Particular consternation was expressed in the Australian media when it was suggested that the pair might be sent to Australia or Canada.
Venables and Thompson have been the centre of popular opprobrium since 1993, when' at the age of eleven' they were convicted of the brutal murder of a two-year-old boy, James Bulger.
What they said ...
'... if they were to be named and shamed by the media, it would put them ... at grave risk of vigilante attacks'
Mr Paul Cavadino, from the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders
'As children, one can understand them (Venables and Thompson) being given some protection, but what right have they got to be given special treatment as adults as well?'
Mrs Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
Jon Venables and Robert Johnson are now both 18 years old.
On the 12th February, 1993, they killed a little boy of two, James Bulger.
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were then 101/2 years of age, having both been born in August 1982.
The facts of the murder were exceptionally horrific and were widely publicised by the media. They were summarised by the trial judge, Justice Morland, when he sentenced Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.
"The killing of James Bulger was an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity. This child of two was taken from his mother on a journey of over two miles and then was battered to death without mercy and then his body was placed across the railway line so that his body would be run over by a train in an attempt to conceal his murder. In my judgment your conduct was both cunning and very wicked."
Venables and Thompson were convicted of the murder of James Bulger at Preston Crown Court on the 24th November, 1993. They were then 11 years old.
They were sentenced to be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure under section 53(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. They were placed in separate secure units where they have remained throughout their detention. Each unit is a local authority home operated by separate local authorities.
In October 2000 it was revealed that Chief Justice Lyons had ruled that each was now eligible for parole and subject to a favourable decision from the Parole Board would be released back into the community in February 2001.
In January 2001 an injunction was granted to Venables and Thompson preventing the news media releasing details of the new identities with which they will be supplied upon their release.
It has been reported that Venables and Thompson will be given new passports, health cards, assistance with relocation and 'histories' so their new identities can withstand the scrutiny of future neighbours and colleagues.
The British Court Service is an executive agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department. It provides administrative support to a number of courts and tribunals in England and Wales, including the High Court, the Crown Court and the county courts. It has an Internet site to supply information to the various courts it serves.
This site includes a transcript of the recommendation made by Chief Justice Lyons when he advised the Secretary of State for Home Affairs that the tariff (period after which they are eligible for parole) be eight years for both Venables and Thompson.
The recommendation was embargoed until October 26, 2000. It can be found at http://www.courtservice.gov.uk/notices/t_v.htm
The British Court Service also has a copy of Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss' High Court ruling on Venables and Thompson's application that the media be prevented from publishing information which would reveal their identities after their release.
Dame Elizabeth granted the application. The ruling was made on January 8, 2001. It can be found HERE
The Yorkshire Post's Internet site includes an article written on December 17, 1999, after the
European Court of Human Rights ruled that Venables and Thompson had not received a fair trial. It is titled 'Justice in the Dock' and is extremely critical of the European Court of Human Rights' ruling.
It can be found at http://www.ypn.co.uk/archive/171299/yp171299/comment/c1s1.htm
Scotland's Herald newspaper has published a number of articles dealing with the case of Venables and Thompson.
On January 9, 2001, the Herald published a news item by James McKillop primarily treating the response of James Bulger's mother, Mrs Denise Fergus to the High Court injunction preventing the news media revealing details of the new identities with which Venables and Thompson will be supplied.
The article is titled `Faced with injustices'. It can be found on the Herald's Internet site at http://www.theherald.co.uk/news/archive/9-1-19101-0-6-14.html
On January 9, 2001, the Herald also published an editorial on both the length of sentence that should have been imposed on Venables and Thompson and on the High Court injunction preventing the news media revealing their identities.
The editorial makes a number of interesting points, including the difficulty of preventing the identities of the two young men being revealed on the Internet.
It is titled 'Matters of life and death; Bulger killers have a right to safety, but so do we'. It can be found at http://www.theherald.co.uk/leader/archive/9-1-19101-23-17-51.html
On March 16, 1999, the Herald published a comment by John MacLeod, titled 'Driven by society's own guilt'. This opinion piece makes the argument that popular hostility to Venables and Thompson is partly a denial by society at large of those factors that undermine childhood.
The comment can be found at http://www.theherald.co.uk/opinion/macleod/archive/16-3-1999-21-25-11.html
Arguments supporting the protection of Venables and Thompson after their release
1. Children are less aware than adults of the consequences of any criminal action they perform; they should, therefore, be treated with greater leniency.
Those who argue this position usually do not claim that children are completely without responsibility for their actions. Rather they argue that children are less aware of the full consequences of what they do than someone older would be. According to this line of argument, a child could injure someone fatally and yet not be culpable in the same way as an adult.
In some countries, such as Norway, young people are not regarded as legally capable of committing a crime until they are 15. Even in nations such as Great Britain, where the age at which a child is regarded as capable of committing a crime is 10, penalties are rarely as severe as they would be for an adult who had committed the same offence.
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were both only 10 when they murdered two-year-old James Bulger. According to a number of authorities, the boys' youth justifies the relatively lenient treatment they have since received.
Tracey Bretag, an Adelaide writer and academic, has made this point. Ms Bretag has stated, 'Judicial responses need to see beyond the caricature of innocence traditionally attributed to children, without then judging the child to be guilty of premeditated adult crime.'
2. The notoriety of Venables and Thompson's crime and the popular hatred they engendered mean their lives are likely to be at risk anywhere their identities are known.
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the British High Court, Family Division, made this point. It was Dame Elizabeth who ruled that the identities of Venables and Thompson should not be revealed after their release.
Dame Elizabeth judged that the public's 'moral outrage' at the crime Venables and Thompson had committed had not diminished during the eight years they had been in prison. She stated that they had become 'uniquely notorious'. She considered that as a result of the enduring popular anger Venables and Thompson were 'seriously at risk of injury or death' if their identities were revealed after their release. She stated, 'There remains among some members of the public a serious desire for revenge if the two young men are living in the community.'
Dame Elizabeth further stated that they faced 'serious risk of attacks from members of the public as well as from relatives and friends of the murdered child.'
A similar point has been made by Paul Cavadino, from the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Mr Cavadino has stated, '... if they were to be named and shamed by the media, it would put them ... at grave risk of vigilante attacks.'
3. Venables and Thompson have served their sentences; they should not be punished any further.
According to this line of argument, now that Venables and Thompson have been judged to have served a sufficiently long prison term, they should be able to return to society without fear of further retribution.
In answer to accusations that Venables and Thompson did not serve a long enough prison term, it has been claimed that the age of the offenders at the time the crime was committed has to be taken into account. Also, of significance is the effect that a longer prison term might have on their rehabilitation. It was decided to make Venables and Thompson eligible for release in February 2001, because to serve all their formative years in prison would be likely to hinder rather than promote their rehabilitation.
Lord Chief Justice Wolf was the judge who ruled that Venables and Thompson should be released after eight years' imprisonment.
The Chief Justice stated, 'Further detention would not serve any constructive purpose.'
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the British High Court, Family Division, who ruled that the identities of Venables and Thompson should not be revealed after their release, stated, 'Although the crime of these two young men was especially heinous, they did not thereby forfeit their rights under English law ...'
4. Venables and Thompson have been rehabilitated; they should pose no further risk to the community.
It has been claimed that Venables and Thompson have made significant progress toward rehabilitation while they have been imprisoned. It is claimed that both young men have shown themselves to be academically able. Richard Thompson is said to be studying for A levels and hoping to attain a degree. He has also been reported to have developed an interest in design and textiles. Jon Venables is also said to have shown himself as suitable for further education.
It has further been claimed that Thompson has indicated that on his release he would like to start a family of his own. One of those who works with Thompson was quoted in London's Sun as saying, 'He has said on many occasions that he wants to be able to live a relatively normal life and be a better father than his own dad was.'
Venables and Thompson will not be released until a Parole Board panel made up of a judge, a psychiatrist and an independent member, has considered their application. They will be on 'licence' for the rest of their lives and will have to keep in regular contact with probation officers. They can be recalled to custody immediately if they reoffend or if there is a risk of further violence. It has also been claimed that after Venables and Thompson's release, the British Government will fund a counsellor to oversee their continuing rehabilitation.
5. Freedom of the press is important, but it is not the only consideration.
It has been claimed that the decision to require the news media to protect the identities of Venables and Thompson is not an attack on the freedom of the press. Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss has claimed that in making her judgement she had to weigh up Venables and Thompson's right to life against the news media's right to freedom of expression.
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said, 'I recognise the enormous importance of upholding freedom of expression and the right of the press to publish.'
6. Disguising the identities of Venables and Thompson will not set a precedent in the treatment of other murderers who have served their sentences.
It has been claimed that the decision to require the news media to protect the identities of Venables and Thompson will not set a precedent. Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss has argued that her ruling should not allow other prominent criminals to claim a similar anonymity upon their release. Dame Elizabeth has stated that Venables and Thompson are 'uniquely notorious'. She has claimed that it is in recognition of their unique position that her ruling to protect their identities was made.
Arguments opposing the protection of Venables and Thompson after their release
1. Venables and Thompson have not been adequately punished.
Robin Makin, the Bulger family's solicitor, has made this point. Mr Makin has claimed that there would be no fear of vigilante attacks on Venables or Thompson if their prison terms had been sufficiently long. According to this line of argument, one of the reasons why a feeling of popular outrage has persisted towards Venables and Thompson is that the British public does not consider they have been adequately punished for their crime.
Mr Makin has stated, 'If there was adequate punishment, the furore would die down and society would feel less unhappy about the situation ...'
Mr Bulger, James Bulger's father made a similar complaint. Mr Bulger stated, 'People are being released too early.'
This point was also made in a Herald Sun editorial of January 10 2001, which stated, 'Britons in general ... are understandably outraged that the two killers, now 18, are to be released on parole after serving less than eight years of their life sentences.'
2. The rights of Venables and Thompson have been put ahead of the rights of their victims.
This point has been made by Mr Ralph Bulger, the father of James Bulger, the two-year-old boy who was killed by Venables and Thompson eight years ago. Mr Bulger has said, 'I am devastated by the way the justice system appears to have dismissed the rights of my dead son and his family.'
A similar point has been made by Mrs Denise Fergus, James Bulger's mother. Mrs Fergus has stated, 'No matter which corner I turn, I am faced with injustices. The only shred of hope I had left was that Dame Elizabeth would turn down the application for Thompson and Venables to be given anonymity for the rest of their lives.'
The Herald Sun in its editorial of January 10, 2001, criticised Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss' judgement. The editorial stated, 'Incredible as it may seem, the judge was not talking about her obligation to the family of the tiny victim of one of Britain's most vicious murders.
Instead, she was ordering special protection for the fiendish killers of James Bulger ...'
3. Protecting the identities of Venables and Thompson after their release is an attack on the freedom of the press.
A number of the newspapers that presented cases before Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss argued that the public had a right to know what became of convicted killers, and that the media had both a right and an obligation to supply it with that information.
It is expected that the British news media will challenge the judge's ruling before the Court of Appeal as an unjustified restriction on freedom of the press.
4. Protecting the identities of Venables and Thompson after their release puts at risk the communities into which they will be resettled.
Mr Noel McNamara, the president of the Australian Crime Victims' Support Association, has made this point. Mr McNamara has stated, 'If people are living next door to these two murderers, they have a right to know about it.'
Community concern about the risk that Venables and Thompson may pose after their release is one of the reasons there was such hostility within Australia to the suggestion that either of these young might be relocated in Australia after their release.
A similar point has been made by Denise Fergus, James Bulger's mother. Mrs Fergus has stated, 'They can use these false identities as a cover and could even kill another child before anyone realises the danger.'
5. As adults, Venables and Thompson should no longer receive the special consideration before the law that they did when children.
This point has been made by Mrs Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger. Mrs Fergus has stated, 'As children, one can understand them (Venables and Thompson) being given some protection, but what right have they got to be given special treatment as adults as well?'
According to this line of argument, any entitlement to special consideration which Venables and Thompson may have had as children ceased to apply once the pair ceased to be children.
6. Protecting the identities of Venables and Thompson after their release will set a dangerous precedent.
Stephen Marks, a British media lawyer, has claimed that, although Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss considered that her judgement would set no precedent, in his view there was a significant danger that the judge's ruling would allow other notorious murderers to demand anonymity from the press upon their release.
It has been noted that another notorious murderer, Mary Bell, who had been convicted in 1968 of killing two children on Tyneside has already been granted such anonymity.
Concern has been expressed that other convicted murderers, such as Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, would also seek such protection if they were released. This point has been made by the British Society of Editors, which has claimed that Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss' ruling could open the door for other criminals to seek similar protection.
It will be interesting to note whether the British news media is successful in its appeal to the Court of Appeal against Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss' judgement. Given that a similar ruling to Dame Elizabeth's has already given media anonymity to convicted child murderer Mary Bell, it seems likely that the judge's ruling in relation to Venables and Thompson will stand.
The further implications of Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss' ruling are significant. It does seem probable that, despite the judge's belief to the contrary, other notorious criminals may make similar applications to have their identities protected by the media. The extent to which this becomes an accepted practice will depend at least in part on how successful the attempt to protect the identities of Venables and Thompson is seen to be.
Should either Venables or Thompson reoffend then the terms under which they were released would immediately be re-examined. The public outcry would be so great that there may well be political implications, with the minister, if not the entire government, popularly deemed responsible suffering as a consequence.
It also remains to be seen whether Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss' ruling will succeed in protecting the identities of Venables and Thompson. Numbers of critics of the ruling have indicated that they intend to unmask the two young men on the Internet. Dame Elizabeth's judgement does not prevent anyone who knew the assumed identities of Venables and Thompson revealing these on the Internet. It does, however, prevent any media outlet that reads this information on the Internet then publishing it.
Apart from the question of how those who achieve infamy through their crimes should be treated on their release, the Venables and Thompson case also raises the difficult question of how child criminals should be treated. A number of serious and well-publicised crimes committed by children have made this a pressing issue in both Britain and the United States.
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $32.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
4/11/00 page 5 (News Extra) analysis by Simon Hattenstone, 'A town's power to forgive'
19/12/00 page 6 news item, 'Bulger's killers may get new lives in Antipodes'
20/12/00 page 10 editorial, 'The era of the penal colony is over'
10/1/01 page 8 news item by Sarah Lyall, 'Bulger killers get court protection for life outside'
22/1/01 page 9 news item by James Langton, 'Television wrestling blamed for six-year-old's gory death'
22/1/01 page 15 comment by Tracey Bretag, 'The innocence of youth and other myths'
28/10/00 page 14 news item by Richard Ford and Francis Gibb, 'Freedom a trial for Bulger killers'
10/1/01 page 9 news item by Francis Gibb and Richard Ford, 'Child killers win anonymity'
10/1/01 page 9 news item by Richard Ford, 'Detailed planning for freedom'
11/1/01 page 12 analysis by Richard Morrison, 'When life is one big lie'
The Herald Sun
8/1/01 page 23 news item by Rosie Dunn, 'Bulger dad fights release of killers'
10/1/01 page 1 news item by Rick Wallace, 'Keep out: alarm at fresh start for Bulger's killers'
10/1/01 page 4 news item by Christine Middap, 'Seaside trips as training'
10/1/01 page 10 editorial, 'But what about little James?'
11/1/01 page 19 comments by Christine Middap, 'Should killers be protected? - Yes / No'
11/1/01 page 19 comment by Colin Wilson, 'Shielding boys is a denial of justice'