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David Miller: Ten Year Old Killers

David Miller Online: How Do You Deal With Ten Year Old Killers?

The abduction and murder of toddler James Bulger in 1993 shocked people in the United Kingdom and around the world. His killers were quickly arrested, charged, found guilty and incarcerated, however that was only the beginning of the issue. The problem with this crime is that it was committed by two boys who at that time were only ten years old themselves. Therefore not only did emotions run high over the nature of James’ death, but also the question arose as to what should happen to his two child killers. This issue has again become national focus in Britain as the boys have been granted release by the parole board. Questions are being asked over whether justice has been served, whether the boys are still a danger to society, members of the public taking the law into their own hands and how a society deals with killers who are still children themselves.

The imminent release of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who carried out the murder, was an issue that was going to emerge irrespective of the time the boys spent in an institution. It was always going to demonstrate that instead of old wounds reopening, they had never actually healed. The healing process was always going to be faced with the prospect of Venables and Thompson’s release and certainly not helped by the public emotion surrounding this case or it becoming a political football. Former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard, who was at the time of the murder, in charge of the Home Office, has said that the time served by Venables and Thompson was not long enough. Mr Howard was responding to the decision made by Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf, who ruled that it would not benefit Venables and Thompson to spend time in the "corrosive atmosphere" of young offenders' institutions. Current shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe has also criticised the release, saying she agreed with Mr Howard’s efforts to have the boys serve at least 15 years for their crime.

Nowhere is the public emotion surrounding this case more evident than in Liverpool, the city in which the murder took place. The concern here is that the sentences served where not long enough and that the family of James were excluded from the decision making process. There was a rally held there over the weekend to protest the decision and this was attended by James’ mother Denise Fergus, who warned that Venables and Thompson have no place to hide. Mrs. Fergus said she was shattered by the news and at the weekend took part in the protest in which she rode at the front of a truck convoy with banners saying: "Don't give them a second chance, James didn't get one."

Despite all the highly charged emotions, political rhetoric and debate over sentence periods, there is nothing anyone can do that will change the events of 1993 and none of this answers the question of what happens next. When Venables and Thompson are released, are they going to be able to try and live normal lives or will they forever be under threat by the outraged sectors of the public who feel they should pay for their crimes with their own lives?

The emotion that this case has aroused set aside so that this question can be dealt with, however difficult that may be for some people, it is unlikely the pair will ever be free of the shadow they cast for themselves back in 1993, despite having served their time in one of Her Majesty’s reform institution, and this is the true measure of whether justice has been done. If their remorse and guilt for their crime is true then it will hang over them for the rest of their lives and in that justice will be served. Vigilantism is not the answer.

The threat of retaliatory attacks on the pair has become a real threat as neither boy has been released and already there are concerns for their safety, which now is the issue at hand. Venables’ mother has already expressed her belief that her son will be dead within four weeks of his release and the UK Attorney- General is considering a lawsuit against the Manchester Evening Standard newspaper for publishing details concerning the whereabouts of the boys. There is an allegation that an Internet site published a recent photo of Thompson while on a supervised outing and fears that the Internet will allow those who seek to avenge James’ death to find the location and new identities of his killers.

The James Bulger case is unique and has stirred deep emotion. However, would the reaction by the New Zealand public be any different if it occurred here and how would the case be dealt with? Should children be held accountable for their actions and is there a possibility that boys like Venables and Thompson can rehabilitate their lives and live in a manner that they do not pose a danger to society? If one accepts the argument that children of the age Venables and Thompson were at when they killed James, are not old enough to understand the gravity of their crime, then how should they be dealt with and can we try them in accordance with the law in the manner in which someone deemed to be an adult would be? It is a difficult question, however the inclination expressed by this columnist is that the boys knew what they were doing when they killed James and that serving time in an institution was an appropriate sentence to impose. As for the length of time they served, certainty is not so easy to find. It would not have been possible to keep the under lock and key forever, despite what feelings and emotions this case may arouse, and at least now they have a chance to make something positive of their lives. If they are truly remorseful for their actions as young boys then they will try and build normal and decent lives and always accept the guilt of what they have done. Nothing will bring James back, but at least this way two boys can do something to atone for their actions.

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