So how should you deal with two child murderers?

Related Topics
I discovered the "European" view of the Bulger case on the morning the trial opened in Preston in November 1993. Among those of us queueing for a place in the public gallery were two French journalists, who expressed incredulity at the prospect of two 10-year-old children being tried by jury in an adult court. Under English law that is how it must be, we explained. A very odd way of carrying on, they replied, but no doubt when the court was presented with social and psychiatric reports on the two boys, a fair and appropriate verdict would follow. Um, well, no, the French were told, this being an adult court such evidence is deemed inadmissible and would form no part of the proceedings.

Horrified, the two French journalists went with us into the gallery overlooking Court No 1. My turn to be horrified came next. All the pre-trial publicity had led me to expect two depraved Clockwork Orange super- thugs, not the pair of little primary schoolkids in the dock. What they had done to James Bulger was monstrous. But soon enough the trial seemed monstrous too. John Venables, overawed, cried on the shoulder of the social worker sitting next to him. Robert Thompson sucked his thumb and tried to stare back at the journalists staring at him. Neither knew the half of what was going on. The words flew over their heads. At one point, a barrister, cross- examining, used the metaphor of painting with a broad brush. "What's a broad brush?" Robert Thompson whispered to his social worker.

It was clear that the boys lacked the intellectual maturity to follow proceedings, let alone instruct their lawyers. Indeed, so superfluous was their presence (except as captured prisoners to be paraded before a cheering gallery), I was reminded of those medieval cases when weevils and locusts were put on trial for ruining crops. For some of us, any excitement at being present at a "piece of history" gave way to feelings of shame and complicity - and a conviction that nothing like this must happen again.

Now, after Thursday's judgment from Strasbourg, the Bulger trial is indeed a piece of history - the last court case of its kind in Britain. In future, cases involving children will have to be handled differently, with the media kicked out of the courtroom and the Home Secretary barred from setting tariffs. Thanks to Europe, that is. No thanks to Michael Howard, who still thinks he was right to double the boys' sentence since this was being "sensitive to the public mood" (ie, he had seen the petition in the Sun calling for the boys to be left to rot in jail "for LIFE", and did not want to alienate loyal Tory voters).

No thanks to Jack Straw, whose response to the judgment in the Commons was defensive. Straw could have dissociated himself from his predecessor and from the discredited Majorite ethos of condemning a little more and understanding a little less. He could have promised a fresh start. But instead of acknowledging the force of the verdict from Strasbourg (whose judges agreed unanimously in two of their censures, and by 16 votes to one in the other), he just huffed and puffed, as though the Strasbourg judgment were also a condemnation of his own get-tough policies on juvenile crime.

Straw was right to say that the European Court rejected the charge that the treatment of Thompson and Venables had been "degrading" (by 12 votes to five, in fact - hardly a wholesale exoneration). Efforts were made to ease the boys' ordeal in that Preston court - by showing them the courtroom in advance of the trial, by raising the dock for them, and by keeping to short school hours. Nor does the judge, Michael Morland, deserve censure: kindly in manner throughout (except when mimicking the boys' Scouse accents in his summing-up), he also meant well at the end of the trial when he decided that Boy A and Boy B could now be identified instead of remaining shadowy killers. But justice does not consist of good intentions. The pre-trial familiarising visit was sabotaged by a Sun photographer, who caught one of the boys sucking a lolly, "as though he did not have a care in the world". The short days dragged the trial out much longer than needed, to four weeks. The raised dock, in the view of Strasbourg, made the boys feel more exposed. The media investigation which followed after Thompson and Venables were named at the end of the trial went little further than headlines of the "Evil Monsters" and "Freaks of Nature" variety.

Thanks to Strasbourg, and to the campaigning of legal reform groups in Britain, it is possible to imagine a very different trial from the one that took place in 1993. No jury, to start with. In theory, the presence of a jury guarantees impartiality and independence. But the nine men and three women who sat as jurors in the Bulger case suffered appalling levels of stress (those exhibits of bricks and bars, those photographs of James Bulger's injuries, those taped interviews of Thompson and Venables weeping as they were interviewed by the police), and felt to be under duress from an agenda of public retribution: the boys were to be found guilty and made an example of - that was what nation and government expected. Within a year, the foreman of the Bulger jury had come to regret that verdict. "We should have gone back into court," he said on the radio, "and said yes, we do have a verdict: our verdict is that these boys are in urgent need of social and psychiatric help."

Second, experts in child dysfunction and development drawn from various professions - psychiatrists, social workers, police officers, teachers, lawyers - must form part of the trial process. The experts appearing at the Bulger trial were not allowed to use their expertise. All they could address was whether the boys knew right from wrong - a tricky matter in relation to 10-year-olds, who can be simultaneously streetwise and deeply naive, and whose notion of death is formed chiefly from television. The fact that Thompson and Venables received no treatment for their post-traumatic stress disorder in the nine months between killing James Bulger and standing trial is a disgrace. It was held to be "prejudicial". Indeed so, for what it meant was that they were too distressed to talk about the crime in any meaningful way and could not instruct their lawyers, who were told to plead "Not guilty" without being given a rationale for doing so.

Lastly, the media must be excluded - or perhaps just one responsible pool reporter given access. The press likes to think its presence in court means justice will be seen to be done. Perhaps with adults, that is true. Not so with children, as Strasbourg has ruled. A closed court doesn't mean greater leniency. But it does mean that the eventual rehabilitation of a child offender can become a paramount issue - which a lynch-mob tabloid press will never allow.

Six years on, the Bulger case remains traumatic for many people. My only role was as an onlooker in court, but I don't think I'll ever get over it. Until last week, few wanted to hear what those of us with misgivings wanted to say. Now Strasbourg has moved on the discussion. I hope Jack Straw will listen - and change his tune.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing