Bulger killers to challenge Howard ruling

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The Independent Online
THE TWO children convicted of James Bulger's murder will mount a High Court challenge next month to the Home Secretary's decision on the minimum sentences they must serve.

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables are to be told imminently what 'tariff' Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has set for the 'requirements of retribution and deterrence' to be met.

They were ordered to be detained 'during Her Majesty's Pleasure' for the killing of James with bricks and an iron bar on a north Liverpool railway embankment.

The boys' legal advisers, who have begun appeals against their treatment to the European Court of Human Rights, plan to seek a judicial review by the High Court of Mr Howard's powers and decision, especially if the tariff exceeds the eight- year terms recommended by the trial judge, Mr Justice Morland.

In an unusual move, the Prime Minister has spoken out against the appeal to the European Court, revealed exclusively in the Independent on Sunday last week. In an interview published yesterday by the Liverpool Echo, John Major said he would 'vigorously contest' an appeal lodged on behalf of Thompson and Venables with the Court of Human Rights.

His comments follow the delivery of a 207,000-signature petition to the Home Secretary last week by James's parents, Denise and Ralph Bulger, supporting their claim that Thompson and Venables should spend the remainder of their lives in prison for the abduction and murder of their two-year-old son in February 1993.

'I am going to do everything I can, if it takes me the rest of my life, to keep those two behind bars,' Mrs Bulger, aged 26, said.

Lawyers close to the Bulger case agreed last week that justice had been obscured by public opinion and coverage of the case. The appeals will claim that the boys' human rights have been violated by a politician influenced by public opinion determining how long they spend in custody, rather than an independent judiciary deciding. The European Court will also be asked to rule that 10-year- olds should not have been tried as adults. Psychiatric evidence suggested the two could not fully conduct their defence, and possibly that they showed symptoms of recognised disorders which made a murder trial unfair, lawyers maintain.

There is also concern that the judge decided at the end of their 17-day trial at Preston Crown Court that their identities should be revealed.

Rex Makin, a Liverpool solicitor with more than 40 years' experience, said: 'The trial was a revolting spectacle. We were dealing with people just over the age of criminal responsibility, but there was an overpowering atmosphere of atavistic public opinion which inevitably affected the trial.

'There should have been an order banning the naming of the boys.

'What happened at the Bulger trial is happening elsewhere. The authority of the courts is being challenged by a thirst for vengeance.'

Legal criticism of the treatment of Thompson and Venables since their arrest falls into two broad categories: the law itself, which allows the executive to lock children away indefinitely; and the conduct of the boys' defence by their solicitors and barristers.

The law for trying children has already been changed in the aftermath of the Bulger trial. Prosecutions in future will no longer have to rebut a presumption that children are incapable of knowingly doing wrong.

This made it difficult to introduce subtle psychiatric evidence which could explain why a child committed criminal actions.

The conduct of the boys' defence carried extraordinary burdens. Some observers believe the prosecution was under intense pressure to refuse guilty pleas by Thompson and Venables to the lesser charge of manslaughter. At least one of the boys was prepared to plead manslaughter.

If pleas had been accepted, the pair would still have been detained indefinitely, but a long public trial would have been avoided.

Defence lawyers and observers believe the protracted interviews Thompson and Venables gave to police should have been ruled inadmissible evidence. The interviews, including Venables's partial confession, formed the bulk of evidence of murder.

Thompson's solicitors, Rooney & Co, did not send a qualified solicitor to attend their client's early interviews, defence lawyers say.

'I think the boys might have been advised differently about their rights of silence,' Mr Makin said, a view widely held in legal circles.

Neither boys' defence challenged the admissibility of the interviews, which could have been ruled out by a number of legal criteria.

But since each boy blamed the other, when one of the boys' lawyers agreed to the jury listening to his interviews, the other could have been left without any explanation of his role in the events, since neither entered the witness box.

'The problem was that this was not a miscarriage of justice resulting from the police catching the wrong people,' a lawyer close to the case said.

'The wrong decisions may have been made, but the object had to be to get the best possible treatment for the boys in an atmosphere of hostile, ill-informed public opinion bent on a conviction for murder.'

Last week's moves to challenge aspects of the trial and treatment of Thompson and Venables were prompted by the lobbying of Tom Loflin, a North Carolina attorney representing a number of wealthy Americans appalled by the boys' treatment.

Mr Loflin, 51, who has refused to comment on his intervention, has also won support in English legal circles.