Mother's anger as Woolf tells of killers' remorse

The Bulger case: Denise Fergus breaks down in tears after ruling that murderers have earned chance to be rehabilitated
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The Independent Online

As the lounge-suited Lord Chief Justice stood up and departed the courtroom after delivering judgment yesterday, James Bulger's mother slumped forward in the public benches, held her hand to her head and began to sob.

As the lounge-suited Lord Chief Justice stood up and departed the courtroom after delivering judgment yesterday, James Bulger's mother slumped forward in the public benches, held her hand to her head and began to sob.

Denise Fergus had stared at Lord Woolf, blinking in apparent disbelief, as he read out an 11-page ruling in which he spoke of the "exceptional progress" and "considerable achievements" of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in the eight years since they brutally murdered her son.

Ms Fergus has dedicated much of those eight years to a legal campaign to keep the pair locked up. She has seen the boys' tariffs raised from eight years to 10 and then - by the former Home Secretary Michael Howard - to 15. Now, following a succession of legal challenges by the pairs' solicitors to the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights, she could see the door to freedom being opened for them.

Outside the court Ms Fergus's best friend, Lesley Halligan, read a statement from her. "They have got away with murder and the lawyers and judges are bending over backwards to look after their interests."

Ms Fergus's solicitor, Sean Sexton, said he had not seen her so "devastated" since the day in February 1993 when two 10-year-old boys were charged with battering her two-year-old son to death at the side of a railway line. He said: "She believes Thompson and Venables will be released without serving one actual day in custody."

In reality, the two 18-year-olds have been deprived of their freedom throughout a substantial part of their childhoods. In the confines of unnamed local-authority run secure units in northern England, psychotherapists, psychologists and educationalists have worked to transform two boys - who the trial judge said were capable of "unparalleled evil and barbarity" - into responsible young men.

According to the Lord Chief Justice yesterday, the specialists have been successful.

An assessment report onVenables noted: "He has made exceptional progress... with personal development, acknowledgment of the enormity of his offence, understanding of his actions as a child and in his 'normal' adolescent development in 'abnormal circumstances'." A similar analysis of Thompson suggests he has learned enough from his treatment to appreciate the pain which Ms Fergus felt yesterday.

It said: "Robert has made exceptional progress in his current placement with regard to maturity, education and insight gained in therapy. Robert accepts responsibility for the grave acts he committed in the offence and shows great remorse for the pain and suffering he caused."

Lord Woolf was certainly convinced. He said the reports showed that "these young men are genuinely extremely remorseful about the crime which they committed and the effect which it must have had on James's family".He said the pair appeared to now pose little risk to the public. "They have worked hard in pursuing their education and, given their circumstances, have considerable achievements to their credit. All those who have reported on them regard the risk of their re-offending as being low."

Having been called on last year by the Home Secretary to review the case, Lord Woolf had been expected by many to recommend a 10-year tariff which would have ensured the pairs' release before they went into an adult jail. But the Lord Chief Justice was concerned their "striking progress" would be jeopardised by their impending transfers to Young Offenders' Institutions, due to take place in August when they reach 19.

As well as the "corrosive atmosphere" of such an establishment, "there is also the danger of their being exposed to drugs, of which they are at present free", said Lord Woolf.

The therapy expended on Venables and Thompson had not come cheap, he observed. "Society has invested considerable energy and skilled care in their upbringing. A great deal of money must have been expended upon them. This commitment should be built upon."

All things considered, Lord Woolf decided Venables and Thompson were "entitled to a reduction in the tariff to eight years", meaning they would be released within months.

James' father Ralph Bulger - who only made a submission to Lord Woolf's review after repeated extensions of deadlines - said he was "disappointed but not surprised". His lawyers said they would seek to challenge the ruling.

Both boys are likely to be offered new identities when they are released although Venables has retained close contact with both of his parents, whilst Thompson has been supported by his mother. They may be helped to start new lives away from Merseyside. Lord Woolf said he had been given information of a "very real risk of revenge attacks" on the pair.

But in Liverpool yesterday, the vengeful public fury which engulfed the city at the time of the murder had softened to a feeling that the killers were being released with indecent haste. Carol Stewart, 27, a mother of two, said: "They won't have missed out on anything and that doesn't seem right."