'When fruit is rotten, it cannot ripen again', 25 years after the Bulger case

by: in Law
James Bulger case

The well-known British James Bulger case is ‘celebrating’ its 25th anniversary. This revives the debate on how we should deal with children suspected and convicted of serious crimes.

Many of you will remember the tragic case of James Bulger. The 2-year-old toddler, who was taken, tortured and killed on February 12th in 1993. Not by an adult with severe mental problems – as you might expect – but by two young boys: Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both 10 years old upon arrest. This month the case ‘celebrates’ its 25th anniversary and although it was never really forgotten it is receiving renewed attention from the British press. Not only because it’s been 25 years but also because one of the two boys – now ‘men’ – has recently been arrested and convicted for violating his parole conditions. This has fuelled the debate on how children suspected and convicted of such horrendous crimes can and should be dealt with.

The trial
The facts of the case prompted public outrage: CCTV footage showed how James had been taken by the two boys and his severely injured body was found on a railway line showing multiple signs of severe physical abuse. Outside Preston Crown Court were the trial took place, hundreds of angry people gathered, shouting, “kill them” and “hang them” as the boys were transported in and out of court. Despite their young age, Venables and Thompson were tried as adults by a jury in a public courtroom where they had to take place in the dock separate from their parents. The courtroom had been specially modified with raised chairs so that the boys could look over the court dock. A clear illustration of how inappropriate and unfitting the entire setting was. But what could be expected? A horrific crime was committed, a mother lost her two-year-old son and the killers who ‘abducted’ Bulger from the shopping centre and led him to his death deserved to be punished in the hardest way possible. Eventually, both boys were found guilty and sentenced during Her Majesty’s Pleasure (the sentence for murder when a defendant is under the age of 18).

After the trial
With this judgment Venables and Thompson became the youngest convicted murderers in Britain’s history for almost 250 years. The trial and the verdict were widely disputed and a few years later the Strasbourg Court found that the proceedings had not been fair. By treating the boys as adults “the formality and ritual of the Crown Court must at times have seemed incomprehensible and intimidating for a child of eleven” and the Court concluded that the applicants were unable to participate effectively in the criminal proceedings and were therefore denied a fair hearing (ECtHR 16 December 1999 T. and V. v. United Kingdom, no. 24724/94 and 24888/94). In 2001 – when both boys reached the age of 18 – a Parole Board decided that it was time for their release on a lifelong license. They were given new identities and were released. But their story did not end there. Venables was re-incarcerated in 2010 for downloading and sharing child pornography and was granted parole again in 2013. However, at the beginning of this month, he has again been sentenced to jail for 40 months for the possession of indecent images of children.

Kids are not fruit
For many, especially the merciless British press, Venables’ reoffending illustrates that releasing Bulgers killers was wrong. Although it is has not been established that there is a clear link between the facts committed by Venables in his childhood and his present wrongdoings, for many this is beyond doubt. It is striking to see how, decades later, the Bulger case still dominates discussions about juvenile justice reform and mainly in the repressive sense: evil boys become evil men and therefore need to be removed from society forever. Or as I recently heard a detective say about a juvenile offender in the BBC series Maigret: “When fruit is rotten, it cannot ripen again”. The only thing you can do with rotten fruit is throw it away. I can only hope that is not what we choose to do with our young offenders. No matter how heinous the crime, children deserve to be treated as children and – even more important – they deserve a chance to grow up and live a ‘normal’ life. It is our obligation as society to provide them with the conditions and tools to do so. Even in cases as awful and appalling as the killing of James Bulger. Does that mean that we should forgive and forget? Seal the deal with a cookie and a kiss? Certainly not, but even more than with adults it is of fundamental importance that the right approach is taken and an appropriate intervention is made to try to turn things around. To design a process and deliver a response to the crime which is as clear and as harmless as possible in order to teach the child the difference between right and wrong and promote empathy, which he or she has clearly been lacking. Whether this will be successful or not, we should at least try: when we give up on kids, we give up on everything.

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Together with Anne Floor Janssen van Galen, Christina Peristeridou and Jacques Claessen, Dorris is currently involved in a research project on the role of moral development in the juvenile criminal process. The research aims to understand and assess the (potential) role of moral development – more specifically empathy – in juvenile criminal procedures in different European countries, from a legal and (forensic) psychological perspective.