Bulger killers could be free next year

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The Independent Online

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, today ruled that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, killers of toddler James Bulger, should each serve a minimum sentence of eight years.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, today ruled that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, killers of toddler James Bulger, should each serve a minimum sentence of eight years.

Their minimum sentence ends early next year, when they will be eligible for parole. If they are freed, it would mean that the killers would never go to an adult prison. They are now 18 years old.

Lord Woolf said today: "I set a tariff that will expire today. This will enable the very difficult task of deciding if and how these young men should return to society to begin."

"I emphasise that the final decision as to whether they should be released and conditions of release are the responsibility of the (Parole) Board and nothing I have said is to interfere with the boardÿs discretion."

He hadf taken into the consideration the progress of the boys since they had been taken into custody. Pushing them into the "corrosive" adult prison system could undo the good already done.

Denise Fergus, mother of the murdered toddler, sobbed as she heard the ruling.

The former home secretary Michael Howard said yesterday that he feared Lord Woolf was going to take a lenient line with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. They were given a minimum sentence tariff of 10 years when they were convicted of the murder of the two-year-old in Liverpool in 1993.

Mr Howard, who was home secretary at the time, extended the sentence to 15 years, but his decision was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights which said that only a court could set the tariff. Lord Woolf is due to announce his final ruling today at the High Court in London, in the presence of James's mother, Denise.

Mr Howard said recent comments by Lord Woolf had led him to believe he was planning to take a lenient line with Thompson and Venables.

"He said above all he wanted to try to achieve a sentence which would make the likelihood of a person leading a lawful life in the future greater and not less," Mr Howard said. "That is a perfectly laudable aim, but I don't think it should be the primary consideration. It seems to me to indicate a return to the approach to the criminal justice system in which we put the criminal first, not the victim or potential victims."

Mr Howard said politicians, not "unelected, unaccountable" judges, should decide on the tariff served by a prisoner sentenced to life. The Home Secretary's right to set minimum tariffs for murder will be challenged by two new High Court appeals.