James Bulger murder: How failure to deal with killer Jon Venables became latest episode in tragedy that shames a nation

The story of attempts to reform or restrain the toddler's murderer is one from which very few emerge completely with credit

Adam Lusher
Friday 09 February 2018 20:44 GMT
Jon Venables was ten when he killed two-year-old James Bulger
Jon Venables was ten when he killed two-year-old James Bulger

At 5.15pm on 24 Nov 1993 the nine men and three women of the jury filed back into Court No 1 of Preston Crown Court.

The foreman delivered the unanimous verdict: guilty.

And as he did so, the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy widened.

Jon Venables, and his partner in crime Robert Thompson, in an adult court dock that had to be specially modified so they could see over it, had just become the youngest convicted murderers in Britain for almost 250 years.

As ten-year-olds, on February 12, 1993 they had taken little James Bulger from his mother as she let go of his hand for a few seconds to pay for sausages at a butcher’s in Bootle, Merseyside.

They led the two-year-old to a lonely stretch of railway track, and began torturing him.

They poured modelling paint into the toddler’s eyes, stoned him and clubbed him with half-bricks. They kicked and stamped on him, before battering him with a 22lb iron bar they found lying by the track.

Then they left the toddler’s dead body on the railway line, to be sliced in two by a train.

The judge, Mr Justice Morland described it as a cunning and wicked act of “unparalleled evil and barbarity”.

As the 11-year-old murderers left the dock, one of the dead toddler’s relatives shouted from the public gallery 'How do you feel now you little bastards?', thus providing one tabloid with next morning’s front page headline.

A crowd of 200 watched the two police vans leave court, to cries of “kill them”, “hang them”.

The only mitigation came from Venables’ QC Brian Walsh, who reminded the court that the boy had shown remorse as he confessed to killing James.

'What about his Mum?,” he had asked. “Tell her I am sorry.”

Venables and Thompson became the youngest convicted murderers in Britain for almost 250 years.
Venables and Thompson became the youngest convicted murderers in Britain for almost 250 years.

So from the start, and for the following 25 years, the terms of public debate were clearly framed. For some, there was the implacable certainty that the boys were simply evil: “fiends”, “monsters”.

Others were equally convinced that these were children who did evil but were subject not to justice, but to vengeance: tried in an adult court, identified on conviction and turned into targets for a hatred forever afterwards stoked by a media that knew a good story when it saw one.

It all allowed for blaming the parents and the boys’ upbringing, for a good moral panic about video nasties (that Venables and Thompson almost certainly never watched).

It allowed Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard to appear tough on crime, raising the killers' sentences, in a way later deemed unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights.

It allowed Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair to make his standing rise “still further” after he “very effectively made [the case] into a symbol of [broken] Tory Britain” - as he said so himself in his memoirs.

What it didn’t allow for was a great deal of calm, constructive discussion.

James Bulger, was seen on CCTV being led away to his death
James Bulger, was seen on CCTV being led away to his death (PA Archive/PA Images)

Perhaps one day there will be an end to the shouting of certainties, from both sides of the ideological battle lines.

Then, perhaps, a truer, more complex, more human, but equally depressing Jon Venables story might emerge, one in which no-one is entirely right and no-one is completely vindicated.

But that hasn’t happened yet.

And now we must confront the sequel.

On Wednesday – almost exactly 25 years after committing murder - Venables, now 35, was jailed again.

He admitted downloading 1,170 indecent images of children. A total of 392 of these online pictures and films were in the most serious Category A class. Some showed babies. James Bulger’s killer had downloaded images of “serious crimes inflicted on male toddlers”.

Venables, it emerged, had even downloaded a “paedophile manual”, described by the judge as “designed to encourage its readers to perpetrate the most serious sexual offences against very small children.”

And Mr Justice Edis was well aware that this was Venables’ second child pornography offence. Released from his murder sentence in 2001, Venables had been jailed for two years in 2010 after admitting downloading and distributing indecent images of children.

On Wednesday the judge had no hesitation in telling Venables: “You have a compulsive interest in serious sexual crime against small children. You present a high risk of serious harm to children.”

Small wonder, then, that outside court there was renewed outrage.

There were calls for a public inquiry, demands that Venables’ new identity, kept secret since his release in 2001, should now be revealed.

“Name this sexual deviant”, screamed the headlines, “Unmask the monster”.

The grave of James Bulger
The grave of James Bulger (PA Archive/PA Images)

Few now could argue that the attempt to rehabilitate Jon Venables has been anything other than an abject – and expensive – failure.

Yet when The Independent spoke to the man who first brought Venables to justice, he refused to accept it had been futile to try to reform him.

Albert Kirby led the James Bulger murder investigation. He had to confront every detail of what the two killers did to the toddler. In fact, on more than one occasion in the intervening 25 years the retired Detective Superintendent has felt compelled to try to remind those in authority just how grotesque a crime it was.

Yet when asked on Wednesday whether in 1993 there had been a chance that Venables could have been rehabilitated, Mr Kirby replied: “I have to say yes. Because you have got to look at Thompson. As far as I am aware, he has made a settled life.”

If the newspaper reports are to be believed, Thompson has forged a life for himself and succeeded in keeping out of trouble since his release.

Venables, though, has been lost: the boy who told psychiatrists he wanted a world filled with chocolate, the defendant who wept to police: “Huge, gulping sobs [becoming] one long, high, chilling, unforgettable howl,” as one reporter who heard the interview tape remembered it.

Those who would loudly deplore mob justice, though, may also need to consider that some who sat through the whole trial challenge the conventional wisdom that Venables was the follower to Thompson’s brutish leader.

Thompson, say these observers, may have defiantly stared out the reporters who watched him from the court press bench, but the evidence heard pointed to Venables being the one who first suggested, “Let’s get a kid lost”.

Albert Kirby, moreover, advises you to look again at the true nature of the crime. It wasn’t just unimaginable savagery, he insists:

“What I have been trying to push forward over all these years - and I think it has been grossly under-assessed - is there was a sexual element to the Bulger murder.

“We were able to prove, and put before the court the evidence that Jamie’s penis had been manually manipulated: moved, not by kicking, but by hand.”

Yet it if you want to call Venables a monster and reveal his new identity, you may also need to reflect on what that entails, especially once he is released – if, indeed, he ever is released this time.

You might want to look again at the findings of Sir David Omand, the former Home Office permanent secretary who reviewed Venables’ case after he was jailed in 2010.

“I have been struck throughout,” Sir David observed, “By the extreme difficulties caused by the original court decision to name Jon Venables and Robert Thompson upon their conviction.”

Once the original trial judge decided the killers could be identified, it seems, the media could put names and photographs to the “monsters” - and Venables and Thompson could become targets.

“It is difficult,” Sir David said, “To overstate the damaging impact over the years of the constant fear of exposure of his identity and whereabouts on Jon Venables’ state of mind and on the work of those managing his case.”

In Sir David’s view, it greatly reduced the chances of Venables settling into the kind of secure normality that might – just possibly – have kept him from reoffending.

Instead, Sir David wrote, Venables was forced to live with “a secret he could not share … the constant fear of exposure kept raw by lurid media stories … life as a virtual loner in terms of long term relationships for fear of the possible consequences of having to expose his true identity.”

“I regard it as significant,” Sir David added, “That when Jon Venables was visited by his offender manager shortly after being taken into custody [for child pornography offences, in 2010] he … seemed relieved and appeared to feel safer than when in the community under his false identity.”

For many, the decision to identify Venables was the first and biggest mistake.

It also went to the heart of how Venables and Thompson were publicly demonised, as if they were fully-formed adults, when they were just children.

James Bulger
James Bulger (PA)

Ten years after he delivered the guilty verdict, the foreman of the jury looked back in shame at the atmosphere that had been created.

“I am ashamed I allowed myself to be coerced by the judge and prosecution to agree to a verdict of guilty of murder," Vincent Moss told the Guardian.

"We should have gone back into court and said yes, we do have a verdict: our verdict is that these boys are in urgent need of social and psychiatric help."

Other countries, it has been argued, do allow children to be treated as children.

In 1994 Norway had what, for a time, seemed to be its own Bulger case. Silje Marie Redergaard, five, was found dead in the snow near her home in the village of Rosten on the edge of the city of Trondheim. Two boys aged six and one aged five were responsible.

At least one of them had kicked and beaten the little girl, despite her screaming for mercy. All three had left her unconscious in the snow with her coat pulled off, and when adults found her, Silje was dead.

Albert Kirby and others point to the unbridgeable gulf between the Silje case and the James Bulger murder. Silje was not directly killed by the boys. She froze to death in the snow. This was play between friends going disastrously wrong, not brutal, probably premeditated murder.

Some, however, still point to the fact that while the case shocked Norway, the boys responsible were back at kindergarten within a week. Hate mobs were conspicuous by their absence.

Terje Lund, the police officer leading the investigation, told the BBC he brought the boys toys from his own home before starting to question them.

Norwegian journalists worried that if they appeared too vengeful, reader disgust would cause newspaper circulations to drop.

“I think,” added one, “It's more important the boys were given a chance to recover, to have a normal life later on."

Although, of course, that may be easy to say when it’s a case of play that got out of hand.

But whatever the reason, the British judiciary did seem to decide to do things differently after the Bulger murder.

In January 2010 it was confronted with what became known as the Edlington torture case.

Two brothers, aged 11 and 12, came before the court after subjecting two boys aged nine and 11 to a 90-minute ordeal of “appalling and terrible assaults”. The victims were sexually humiliated, beaten, stamped on, battered with bricks and burned so badly the older boy nearly died.

Again the perpetrators were called “evil”. But this time demands to name them were resisted. The brothers were released and granted lifelong anonymity in December 2016. They do not appear to have become targets like Venables and Thompson. Instead, the Edlington torture case appears to have faded from public memory. So far there has been no highly publicised return to custody.

The key phrase there, though, may be “so far”. In January 2010 some who discussed the Edlington torture incident referred to Venables and Thompson as case studies in how to rehabilitate criminally violent children.

This was somewhat unfortunate given that Venables was returned to custody a month later.

It does seem to speak to the possible official complacency, wishful thinking and back covering which, it has to be said, might also have played a part in the disaster of Jon Venables’ non-rehabilitation.

“Officials had invested a great deal in Jon Venables,” wrote Sir David Omand. “They wanted him to succeed … and they may have therefore perhaps unconsciously been unwilling at times to accept that he could actually be letting them down in such a fundamental way as he did.”

Perhaps there was a desire to prove the mob wrong and show that “monsters” were in fact children who could be rehabilitated. Perhaps that produced a reluctance among the professionals to admit even to themselves that things were going wrong.

Perhaps some of that wishful thinking was in evidence before Venables was released.

One forensic psychiatrist who saw Venables wrote, perhaps a little too smugly, “There is no doubt that in Jon’s case, had he not been placed in secure accommodation at the age of 10, he is likely to have continued on an escalating pattern of offending.”

At about the same time, the eminent child psychiatrist Sir Michael Rutter reported that Venables posed a “trivial” risk to the public provided he was properly supported and monitored.

James Bulger's mother says Jon Venables 2018 sentence a "farce"

But before condemning the professionals, it may be necessary to consider the extraordinary situation they were facing, because of that earlier decision to name Venables.

The need to protect him from vigilante vengeance had turned him into that rarest of offender: one trained to lie by the very officials whom, if he wanted, he could then deceive.

“He had to undertake a complete change of identity to protect himself,” Sir David wrote. “A legacy life, a narrative had to be created for him. He was thus taught to lie and had to become good at it”.

Perhaps, also, even without being trained to lie, Venables would have been reluctant to admit to psychiatrists and probabtion officers, and to himself, what was going on in his head.

And perhaps all these strands came together after Venables was released, and stopped him being returned to jail before he was found with child pornography.

Nowhere was this more arguable than in 2008, when Venables was arrested twice, first for a drunken scuffle outside a nightclub, and then for cocaine possession.

He could have been recalled to custody under the terms of his release on life licence. He wasn’t. In his review Sir David described how those monitoring Venables took the view that cocaine and nightclub fights were “not untypical of a significant number of young men of his peer group”.

Yet as a child killer, Venables was of course wholly untypical of his peer group. Sir David did not explicitly point that out.

He did, however, note that after his cocaine arrest, Venables was given a one-hour psychiatric assessment, which concluded there were no underlying problems.

The assessor got Venables badly wrong.

“The contrast,” Sir David wrote, “With the evidence given at his [2010] trial of his being on a downward spiral at that point, with increasing use of mephedrone and of pornography could not be more complete.

“It is difficult not to conclude with hindsight that he was putting on an act to fob off intrusive questioning. The upshot was that [those managing his case] were lulled into not pursuing the issue.

“With the benefit of hindsight we can see that it would have been better if greater efforts had been made to try to get him to accept some form of therapeutic counselling with a trusted professional who could know his true identity.”

Indeed, the need for such counselling was all the more marked because from 2003, for little more than administrative reasons, Venables had not been under the supervision of a clinical psychiatrist, contravening a licence condition imposed at the express request of Home Secretary David Blunkett.

Sir David remarked mildly: “I find it surprising that in 2008 and 2009, with the case appearing to be on a downward path, there was not a more active attitude to the provision of professional clinical support.”

His review, which has been seen by many as a masterclass in Whitehall providing absolution for all officialdom, was still able to conclude that no-one could be blamed for the way that “the offence involving indecent images of children came as a complete shock to all concerned”.

But in 2013, Venables’ paedophile inclinations were known to the whole world. Why then was he released, when he could have been detained under the terms of his life licence until people were absolutely sure he had been rehabilitated?

The Parole Board, of course, is hamstrung by the fact it cannot comment on individual cases.

Albert Kirby, though, is clear.

“It was a flawed decision,” he said. “Whoever made it, underestimated the whole character of the man.”

Mr Kirby was backed by one of the few former senior officials ever to have commented publicly on the case, Malcolm Stevens, who in 1993 was the Home Secretary's professional adviser for children.

“I can’t understand it,” Mr Stevens told The Independent. “It was a hell of a risk to take in 2013.”

And during Wednesday’s court hearing it emerged that in 2015 Venables, already convicted of viewing online child pornography, had breached his Sexual Offences Prevention Order by accessing the internet.

Yet he was given a police caution instead of being returned to custody, as he could have been.

It did leave some wondering whether in 2015 a decision had been made that mirrored the questionable actions taken after Venables was arrested in 2008.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman insisted that Venables had not been accessing the internet for anything illegal in 2015: “There was no evidence at that time of an increased risk to the public that would have justified recall [to custody].”

Denise Fergus, mother of James Bulger
Denise Fergus, mother of James Bulger (Peter Byrne/PA Archive/PA Images)

Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, called the decision just to issue a police caution “part of a pattern of collusion between Venables and the authorities.”

The old battle lines were being redrawn.

The 40-month sentence passed by Mr Justice Edis was branded a “joke”, despite him stressing he had to judge present, not past offences, and that Venables’ life licence meant he might never be released.

A petition calling for a public inquiry into Venables and the James Bulger murder case raced past 130,000 signatures.

Venables, his lawyer said, had expressed remorse and admitted he needed help.

As he begins his third stretch inside, to the accompaniment of sound and fury outside, perhaps he is again relieved to be back in the place he has come to know best: custody.

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