James Patrick Bulger (16 March 1990 – 12 February 1993) was a 2-year-old boy from Kirkby, Merseyside, England, who was abducted, tortured and killed by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Bulger was led away from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle as his mother had taken her eyes off him momentarily. His mutilated body was found on a railway line 2.5 miles (4 km) away in Walton, Liverpool, two days after his abduction. Thompson and Venables were charged on 20 February 1993 with Bulger’s abduction and murder.
They were found guilty on 24 November 1993, making them the youngest convicted murderers in modern British history. They were sentenced to detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure until a Parole Board decision in June 2001 recommended their release on a lifelong licence aged 18. In 2010, Venables was sent to prison for breaching the terms of his licence, and was released on parole again in 2013. In November 2017, Venables was again sent to prison for possessing child abuse images on his computer.
The Bulger case has prompted widespread debate on the issue of how to handle young offenders when they are sentenced or released from custody.
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle taken on Friday 12 February 1993 showed Thompson and Venables casually observing children, apparently selecting a target. The boys were playing truant from school, which they did regularly. Throughout the day, Thompson and Venables were seen stealing various items including sweets, a troll doll, some batteries and a can of blue paint, some of which were later found at the murder scene. One of the boys later revealed that they were planning to find a child to abduct, lead him to the busy road alongside the shopping centre, and push him into the path of oncoming traffic.
That same afternoon, Bulger, from nearby Kirkby, went with his mother, Denise, to the New Strand Shopping Centre. Whilst inside the A. R. Tym’s butcher’s shop on the lower floor of the centre at around 15:40, Denise, who had been temporarily distracted, realised that her son had disappeared. Thompson and Venables approached him and took him by the hand, and led him out of the shopping centre. The moment was caught on CCTV at 15:42. Bulger was taken to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, around a quarter of a mile from the New Strand Shopping Centre, where he was dropped on his head and suffered injuries to his face. The boys joked about pushing Bulger into the canal. An eyewitness during the trial said that when he saw Bulger at the canal, he was “crying his eyes out”. During a 2.5-mile (4 km) walk across Liverpool, the boys were seen by 38 people, but most bystanders did nothing to intervene. Two people challenged Thompson and Venables, but they claimed Bulger was their younger brother or that he was lost and they were taking him to the local police station. At one point, the boys took Bulger into a pet shop, from which they were ejected.
Eventually, the boys arrived in the village of Walton, and with Walton Lane police station across the road facing them, they hesitated and led Bulger up a steep bank to a railway line near the disused Walton & Anfield railway station, close to Anfield Cemetery, where they began torturing him.
One of the boys threw blue Humbrol modelling paint, which they had shoplifted earlier, into Bulger’s left eye. They kicked him, stamped on him and threw bricks and stones at him. Batteries were placed in Bulger’s mouth and, according to police, some batteries may have been inserted into his anus, although none were found. Finally, the boys dropped a 10-kilogram (22 lb) iron bar, described in court as a railway fishplate, on Bulger. He sustained 10 skull fractures as a result of the bar striking his head. Alan Williams, the case’s pathologist, stated that Bulger suffered so many injuries—42 in total—that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Thompson and Venables laid Bulger across the railway tracks and weighted his head down with rubble, in the hope that a train would hit him and make his death appear to be an accident. After they left the scene, his body was cut in half by a train. Bulger’s severed body was discovered two days later on 14 February. A forensic pathologist testified that he had died before he was struck by the train.
Police suspected that there was a sexual element to the crime, since Bulger’s shoes, socks, trousers and underpants had been removed. The pathologist’s report, which was read out in court, found that Bulger’s foreskin had been forcibly retracted. When Thompson and Venables were questioned about this aspect of the attack by detectives and a child psychiatrist, Eileen Vizard, the pair were reluctant to give details and also denied inserting some of the batteries into Bulger’s anus. At his eventual parole, Venables’s psychiatrist, Susan Bailey, reported that “visiting and revisiting the issue with Jon as a child, and now as an adolescent, he gives no account of any sexual element to the offence.”
The police quickly found low-resolution video images of Bulger’s abduction from the New Strand Shopping Centre by two unidentified boys The railway embankment upon which his body had been discovered was adorned with hundreds of bunches of flowers. The family of one boy, who was detained for questioning but subsequently released, had to flee the city due to threats by vigilantes. The breakthrough came when a woman, on seeing slightly enhanced images of the two boys on national television, recognized Venables, who she knew had played truant with Thompson that day. She contacted police and the boys were arrested.
The fact that the suspects were so young came as a shock to investigating officers, headed by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, of Merseyside Police. Early press reports and police statements had referred to Bulger being seen with “two youths” (suggesting that the killers were teenagers), the ages of the boys being difficult to ascertain from the images captured by CCTV. Forensic tests confirmed that both boys had the same blue paint on their clothing as found on Bulger’s body. Both had blood on their shoes; the blood on Thompson’s shoe was matched to Bulger’s through DNA tests. A pattern of bruising on Bulger’s right cheek matched the features of the upper part of a shoe worn by Thompson; a paint mark in the toecap of one of Venables’s shoes indicated he must have used “some force” when he kicked Bulger. Thompson is said to have asked police whether the two-year-old had been taken to hospital to “get him alive again”.
The boys were each charged with the murder of James Bulger on 20 February 1993, and appeared at South Sefton Youth Court on 22 February 1993, when they were remanded in custody to await trial. In the aftermath of their arrest, and throughout the media accounts of their trial, the boys were referred to as ‘Child A’ (Thompson) and ‘Child B’ (Venables). Awaiting trial, they were held in the secure units where they would eventually be sentenced to be detained indefinitely.
Up to five hundred protesters gathered at South Sefton Magistrates’ Court during the boys’ initial court appearances. The parents of the accused were moved to different parts of the country and assumed new identities following death threats from vigilantes. The full trial opened at Preston Crown Court on 1 November 1993, conducted as an adult trial with the accused in the dock away from their parents, and the judge and court officials in legal regalia. The boys denied the charges of murder, abduction and attempted abduction. The attempted abduction charge related to an incident at the New Strand Shopping Centre earlier on 12 February 1993, the day of Bulger’s death. Thompson and Venables had attempted to lead away another two-year-old boy, but had been prevented by the boy’s mother.
Each boy sat in view of the court on raised chairs (so they could see out of the dock designed for adults) accompanied by two social workers. Although they were separated from their parents, they were within touching distance when their families attended the trial. News stories reported the demeanour of the defendants. These aspects were later criticised by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1999 that they had not received a fair trial by being tried in public in an adult court. At the trial, the lead prosecution counsel Richard Henriques QC successfully rebutted the principle of doli incapax, which presumes that young children cannot be held legally responsible for their actions.
Thompson and Venables were considered by the court to be capable of “mischievous discretion”, meaning an ability to act with criminal intent as they were mature enough to understand that they were doing something seriously wrong. A child psychiatrist, Eileen Vizard, who interviewed Thompson before the trial, was asked in court whether he would know the difference between right and wrong, that it was wrong to take a young child away from his mother, and that it was wrong to cause injury to a child. Vizard replied, “If the issue is on the balance of probabilities, I think I can answer with certainty.” Vizard also said that Thompson was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack on Bulger. Susan Bailey, the Home Office forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Venables, said unequivocally that he knew the difference between right and wrong.
Thompson and Venables did not speak during the trial, and the case against them was based to a large extent on the more than 20 hours of tape-recorded police interviews with the boys, which were played back in court. Thompson was considered to have taken the leading role in the abduction process, though it was Venables who had apparently initiated the idea of taking Bulger to the railway line. Venables later described how Bulger seemed to like him, holding his hand and allowing him to pick him up on the meandering journey to the scene of his murder. Laurence Lee, who was the solicitor of Venables during the trial, later said that Thompson was one of the most frightening children he had seen, and compared him to the Pied Piper. After his appearances in court, Venables would strip off his clothes, saying “I can smell James like a baby smell.” The prosecution admitted a number of exhibits during the trial, including a box of 27 bricks, a blood-stained stone, Bulger’s underpants, and the rusty iron bar described as a railway fishplate. The pathologist spent 33 minutes outlining the injuries sustained by Bulger; many of those to his legs had been inflicted after he was stripped from the waist down. Brain damage was extensive and included a hemorrhage.
The boys, by then aged 11, were found guilty of Bulger’s murder at the Preston court on 24 November 1993, becoming the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century. The judge, Mr Justice Morland, told Thompson and Venables that they had committed a crime of “unparalleled evil and barbarity… In my judgment, your conduct was both cunning and very wicked.” Morland sentenced them to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, with a recommendation that they should be kept in custody for “very, very many years to come”, recommending a minimum term of eight years. At the close of the trial, the judge lifted reporting restrictions and allowed the names of the killers to be released, saying “I did this because the public interest overrode the interest of the defendants… There was a need for an informed public debate on crimes committed by young children.” Sir David Omand later criticised this decision and outlined the difficulties created by it in his 2010 review of the probation service’s handling of the case.
Shortly after the trial, and after the judge had recommended a minimum sentence of eight years, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, recommended that the two boys should serve a minimum of ten years, which would have made them eligible for release in February 2003 at the age of 20. The editors of the Sun newspaper handed a petition bearing nearly 280,000 signatures to Home Secretary Michael Howard, in a bid to increase the time spent by both boys in custody. This campaign was successful, and in July 1994, Howard announced that the boys would be kept in custody for a minimum of fifteen years, meaning that they would not be considered for release until February 2008, by which time they would be 25 years old.
Needless to say there was much debate even after the conviction about what should happen to the children in the long run. Considering it was the only known case at the time with such young perpetrators.
Some British tabloid newspapers claimed that the attack on Bulger was inspired by the film Child’s Play 3, and campaigned for the rules on “video nasties” to be tightened. During the police investigation, it emerged that Child’s Play 3 was one of the films that Jon Venables’ father had rented in the months prior to the killing, but it was not established that Venables had ever watched it. No other proof or plot came to light. They wanted to know what drove these boys to do such a thing, but seems that their wasn’t this big motive at all. They tried blaming anything from movies to games which then brought them to change restrictions on games. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 clarified the rules on the availability of certain types of video material to children.
After the trial, Thompson was held at the Barton Moss Secure Care Centre in Manchester. Venables was detained in Vardy House, a small eight-bedded unit at Red Bank secure unit in St. Helens on Merseyside. These locations were not publicly known until after the boys’ release. Details of the boys’ lives were recorded twice daily on running sheets and signed by the member of staff who had written them. The records were stored at the units and copied to officials in Whitehall. The boys were taught to conceal their real names and the crime they had committed which resulted in their being in the units. Venables’ parents regularly visited their son at Red Bank, just as Thompson’s mother did, every three days, at Barton Moss. The boys received education and rehabilitation; despite initial problems, Venables was said to have eventually made good progress at Red Bank, resulting in him being kept there for the full eight years, despite the facility only being a short-stay remand unit. Both boys, however, were reported to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, and Venables in particular told of experiencing nightmares and flashbacks of the murder.
In September 1999, Bulger’s parents appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, but failed to persuade the court that a victim of a crime has the right to be involved in determining the sentence of the perpetrator. The European Court case led to the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, reviewing the minimum sentence. In October 2000, he recommended the tariff be reduced from ten to eight years, adding that young offender institutions were a “corrosive atmosphere” for the juveniles.
In June 2001, after a six-month review, the parole board ruled the boys were no longer a threat to public safety and could be released as their minimum tariff had expired in February of that year. The Home Secretary David Blunkett approved the decision, and they were released a few weeks later on lifelong licence after serving eight years. Both men “were given new identities and moved to secret locations under a ‘witness protection’-style programme.” This was supported by the fabrication of passports, national insurance numbers, qualification certificates and medical records. Blunkett added his own conditions to their licence and insisted on being sent daily updates on the men’s actions.
The terms of their release included the following: they were not allowed to contact each other or Bulger’s family; they were prohibited from visiting the Merseyside region curfews may be imposed on them and they must report to probation officers. If they breached the rules or were deemed a risk to the public, they could be returned to prison. An injunction was imposed on the media after the trial, preventing the publication of details about Thompson and Venables. The worldwide injunction was kept in force following their release on parole, so their new identities and locations could not be published. Blunkett stated in 2001: “The injunction was granted because there was a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk if their identities became known.