Justice on trial: vigilante fears overshadow parole hearings for killers of James Bulger

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The Independent Online

Today, Jon Venables will go before a parole board that is expected to order his release from a secure detention unit. On Wednesday, Robert Thompson's case is to be heard. Freedom for the pair will mark the beginning of the final chapter in one of the most controversial cases in British criminal history.

Their release, at a secret location, will set in motion a game of cat and mouse between the boys and their many enemies. Will those still enraged by the death that shook their community track down the pair? Will someone within their close circle betray them? Or will Thompson and Venables break their own cloak of anonymity, either unwittingly or by reoffending?

To a society all too used to violent crime, the sadistic murder of the two-year-old James Bulger at the hands of children still inspires a degree of revulsion reserved for the most despicable offenders.

Indeed, the depth of feeling, on Merseyside in particular, remains such that last January, the Family Division President, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, felt "compelled" to grant the killers an open-ended High Court injunction protecting their anonymity for fear that their lives would be in danger.

Yet if recent media interest is any guide, there seems little doubt that Thompson and Venables, now grown men with new identities, will be tracked down and exposed. The only questions appear to be how, when, and where.

Already a recent picture of Robert Thompson is circulating in Liverpool. It was taken from CCTV footage of him on a shopping trip organised by care workers as part of an exercise to reintroduce him to the outside world. Jon Venables was recognised on a similar trip, and retreated rapidly to the sanctuary of a new secure unit. But such sanctuary will not be afforded to him for much longer.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, in effect ended the boys' tariff ­ the minimum period they must spend in custody ­ last October, ruling that it would not be beneficial for them to spend any time in the "corrosive atmosphere" of an adult prison. This week the pair will be questioned by a panel comprising a judge, a psychiatrist and an independent member as well as their own solicitors and Home Office representatives.

Panel members will see psychiatric and other reports from the trial and up-to-date studies from doctors and criminologists. They will also review the killers' school records and consider any further offending that may have taken place during their detention.

A system of tests known as PCL-R ­ designed to establish whether an offender is a psychopath ­ is believed to have been used on the pair. It is expected the panel will judge it "no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the offender continues to be detained" and the two teenagers will be released some time next month.

Speaking in general terms, Ann Barker, a Parole Board spokeswoman, said: "If the panel is satisfied that the risk is minimal and that it can be managed by the Probation Service under the strict terms of a life licence, they will direct release. There is absolutely no rule as to how long that can take ­ it can be anything from days to months."

The two killers, who are both 19 in August and have spent their entire eight-year detention period in local authority secure accommodation, are likely to be released initially into a halfway house.

Protesters from the pressure group Mothers Against Murder and Aggression are planning to hold a demonstration outside the Parole Board's London headquarters today. Dee Warner, their spokeswoman, said: "Is there an expert panel that is going to give us a 100 per cent guarantee that they will never commit another offence like that? Is anyone going to be held accountable if they do commit a new offence?"

They are promising a vigil for James Bulger and a "completely peaceful protest" in marked contrast to the scenes of howling mobs that accompanied the trial. The murder of James Bulger ­ condemned in November 1993 by the trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, at Preston Crown Court as "an act of unparalleled barbarity" ­ was treated with a degree of revulsion almost without equal in British judicial history, particularly in the North-west. The pair were 10 when they abducted the toddler from the Strand shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside, in February 1993. They dragged him to a nearby railway line where they tortured him and left him to die.

An eight-year minimum sentence was recommended and increased to 10 years by Lord Taylor of Gosforth, Lord Chief Justice at the time. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that the former home secretary Michael Howard acted illegally when he raised the tariff to 15 years. Last year Lord Woolf paved the way for parole by cutting the recommended sentence to seven years, eight months. James's family have repeatedly condemned the release. James's father, Ralph Bulger, who recently failed in a High Court attempt to block their early release, has insisted he has been denied justice and pledged to do his best to "hunt them down".

More than 400 people marched through the streets of his home town of Kirkby earlier this year to protest against the prospect of the killers' early release.

Circulating around the Liverpool suburb are rumours of a bounty to anyone who tracks either Thompson or Venables down. Merseyside Police have launched an internal inquiry into how photographs of the pair, taken in 1993 and believed to originate from police files, have been leaked.

And last week it was revealed that vigilantes were proposing to publish the recent CCTV photograph of Thompson on a foreign internet site. Dominic Lloyd, Thompson's solicitor, said: "The threat of vigilante action has been with us for a long time."

The very cloak of mystery that surrounds the boys has sparked intense speculation about the men they have turned into.

While certain sections of the media reacted with anger to the anonymity granted to the two killers, most are likely to abide by the High Court injunction unless they feel confident in citing overwhelming public interest. However, it will not stop the information filtering through to journalists.

The News of the World, while not publishing the location of Venables' new home, gave every impression yesterday of having seen the "life of luxury" he will enjoy. It insisted that the young man will join his parents in a £65,000 three-bedroom turn-of-the-century semi in the north of England. The housing association property with a "second-hand family saloon parked in the drive" is on a new estate close to a railway and nursery schools.

But it is not the established media the two men must fear most. The very international nature of their notoriety has made them particularly vulnerable to identification via the internet.

Thompson and Venables will live life pursued by those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have been insufficiently punished for their abhorrent crime. And there may well come a day when the Bulger family campaigners are not the only ones who wish the pair were back behind bars.