Bulger killers set to gain earlier release

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JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, accepted a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights yesterday that the two young killers of James Bulger did not receive a fair trial.

The landmark judgment is likely to lead to the release much earlier than expected of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables - possibly in 2003.

The judges' finding that the boys' trial in an adult courtroom amounted to a breach of their human rights will force the Government to change the way juveniles are tried and sentenced for serious offences.

The court also ruled that a decision by Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, to set a minimum term of 15 years for the 1993 murder of the two-year- old in Liverpool was a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Although the judges, sitting in Strasbourg, rejected claims that the boys suffered "inhumane and degrading" treatment, they ruled that the proceedings had been "incomprehensible and intimidating" to two 11-year- olds. The court awarded both boys costs against the Government, which will have to pay pounds 29,000 to Venables and pounds 15,000 to Thompson.

James's mother, Denise Fergus, said she was "very disappointed" by the court's finding. "The killers have slick lawyers and always get kid-glove treatment," she said.

Thompson's lawyer, Dominic Lloyd, said the costs awarded would pay legal fees. His client had declined to seek compensation. John Dickinson, representing Venables, said he was "pleased" with the judgment.

Mr Straw said: "This judgment does not overturn the verdict of murder, nor does it in any way exonerate the two youths for their part in this terrible crime."