The James Bulger murder case

The justice system in the UK and abroad

The James Bulger murder case

Postby Nathan » 08 Feb 2013, 15:40

It's 20 years this month since the most well-known murder case in English history. There won't be many people reading this who don't remember or at least know the case, but two ten-year-old boys in Liverpool abducted and killed a two-year-old boy who was completely unknown to them. Without wanting to go into too many details, it was a particularly brutal killing. It is also the case in which my viewpoint is at its most liberal.

The level of notoriety and emotion that case caused and still causes was unique, likewise the effect it had on shaping public policy and attitudes towards children. The murder itself though was far from unique. In the 250 years previously, murders committed by children (taken to mean under-14s) had happened in Britain at an average of slightly over one a decade. Some had hit the headlines, some hadn't. When in 1968 11-year-old Mary Bell in Newcastle killed two young children, it became a major news story still widely known today - though the tone of the reporting was strikingly different. When in 1990 11-year-old Richard Keith in Glasgow drowned a three-year-old boy, it did not become a major national story and was quickly forgotten. I intend to examine the reasons just why the Bulger case yields a disproportionate level of notoriety compared to other, similar cases.

Every single aspect of that murder only conspired to increase its impact as a news story. Firstly, it began as a missing person inquiry, which by its nature elicits public involvement. Then, two days later, the body was found in all its grisly detail. There followed a manhunt, then the focus turned to two young boys seen in a CCTV image. There were a number of boys arrested and then later cleared, followed eventually by the correct boys being arrested and then charged, and the shocking detail of their ages revealed. Every day, a fresh shocking turn to the story.

The emotional impact of the case was heightened by the fact that it took place in Liverpool, probably the most sentimental city in the country, and at a particularly low time in its history, coming not long after the Toxteth, Heysel and Hillsborough events and a particularly steep decline in the region's economy and self-image. Likewise, a case which whichever way you look at it screams 'social decay' took place not long after the 'no such thing as society' years, at a time when both adult and juvenile crime was rising and fear of a generation of out-of-control children had become a substantial public concern, and attitudes had begun to harden. It was the perfect conditions for a moral panic. A post-religious society suddenly rediscovered its belief in evil.

One case in which the Bulger case is unique, or at least was a first, was that you could almost see it happening. The CCTV image of the two boys leading him away tells the story more than a thousand words ever could. It should be borne in mind that in 1993 CCTV was a fairly new thing - indeed, if the murder had happened five years before there would have been no CCTV image, and the two boys responsable may quite easily never have been caught. It is unlucky that the Bulger case happened in a society which has a particularly nasty and vituperative tabloid press, which in this case bordered on, and on the frequent follow-ups in the ongoing, neverending saga still does border on the hysterical. Worst of all was the Daily Star front-page headline the day after the guilty verdict, "How do you feel now, you little bastards?", quoting a comment made by a member of the public gallery after the verdicts had been passed. Other newspapers called them 'evil' and 'freaks of nature'. The Sun ran a petition calling for the two 10-year-olds found guilty to 'rot in jail for life', a petition which managed to get nearly 300,000 signatures. TD actually wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph the day after the verdict entitled, 'What's wrong with society is far too many rights', offering Sixties permissiveness as a cause. On a wider scale I certainly see his point, but murders at the hands of children are not any more frequent now than in previous eras before Sixties permissiveness, though it's not so much the causes of that murder that interest me so much as the nature of the public reaction to it.

It is often said that the toxic sentimentality of our age began with the death of Princess Diana in 1997, but I would put its origins four years further back to this case. Which other murder victim completely unknown outside his own family has his funeral broadcast live on ITV? Which other of the hundreds of parents bereaved by murder every year does Hello magazine run a six-page interview with before the trial? Which other bereaved parent refuses all offers of counselling, yet has her own media advisor, who regularly gets her a platform in our lowbrow newspapers and television networks, happy to accommodate what is largely hate-filled, inarticulate and highly repetitive ranting, not just at the time when sympathy with her would be entirely understandable, but a full two decades later? Looking at some of the archive footage of the case that has been put up on Youtube, there are people devoting entire channels to the case who weren't even alive when it happened.

The media coverage contrasted strikingly with the consideration given to Mary Bell. The Sun at first 'wouldn't touch the story with a barge pole', and the BBC refused to mention it in the early-evening news broadcasts out of consideration for any children who might be watching. That shows some change in social attitudes within a relatively short period of 25 years. It is also worth mentioning that Mary Bell's charge was reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility due to her age, not murder.

Even though I was only nine years old when it happened, or perhaps because I am a similar age to the two boys involved, so unlike most I could interpret it through a child's perspective, I have always had not only a strong interest in this case but perhaps more controversially, a large amount of sympathy for the two boys found guilty. At the time I read every article about it I could find, sometimes over and over again in the unique way that children have.

I am not in any way excusing or making light of such a horrible crime, but from a gut instinct 20 years ago to thinking over it more profoundly now, I have always found the concept of an entire nation, right from the Government down to the people turning out to shout obscenities and throw missiles at two terrified little children inside a police van being driven to court and the countless semi-literate Youtube commentors spouting their vitriol all these years later having that much hatred for two young children deeply, deeply disturbing. Right from day one I have found the level of hatred involved more disturbing than the actual crime. Certainly I think the hatred says more about the society than the crime ever could.

I have no personal connection with the case whatsoever, but I have always felt uneasy that the two most widely-hated children in the whole of human history were two boys from my generation and from my country, a country which was once regarded as the most civilised in the world. This case was the first time that it occured to me that something was not right in the society in which I lived. Just how does the fact that they were so young somehow make the crime worse and the perpetrators more culpable, as if children were to be held to higher moral standards of behaviour than the dozens of adults who murder young children every year who are not considered worthy of such media attenion? I find it impossible to reconcile these two 'evil psychopathic demons' of popular imagination with the tearful and scared child-like voices as can be heard in these police interviews.

When Jon Venables was re-arrested in 2010, regrettably for child pornography offences, the vitriol resumed in the tabloid newspapers and talk radio and online message boards and did not let up for weeks. Only in modern-day Britain could one of the most hated people in a society be as hated as he is because of one thing he jointly did at age ten - one thing, indeed, which every one of the many studies of the case insist he showed genuine contrition for and who served the sentence give to him by the court, and to all intents and purposes had any prospects for his own life irrevocably ruined by the case.

At the time when the case came back into the limelight I managed to find a website devoted to tracking the two men down and unmasking them from their second identities, which were considered necessary at the time of their original release to give to them to protect them from vigilantes. Years after the case had been in the news at all, there were still people posting photos of men who they thought might look like the adult Thompson and Venables, and giving their locations in what can only be a thinly-veiled encouragement to vigilante action. The site also had pictures of the famous police mugshots of them as ten-year-olds only with nooses tied around their necks - the single most obscene picture I've ever seen in my life, and something that made me feel thoroughly sick. Thankfully I haven't been able to track that site down now, so hopefully it has been taken offline. The two of them were not the first people to be given a contra mundum order which prohibits any mention of their lives from being published, as Mary Bell was given one in 1984, but this was to protect her daughter from the notoriety, and not because it was considered necessary to protect her from public reprisals.

The threat to them is real: on the day of the guilty verdict against them, one of the Bulger uncles rang into a radio phone-in threatening to kill the boys whenever they were released from prison, and James Bulger's father made threats against them before their release. Since their release, there have been at least five cases that have come to light of innocent people being harrassed because of malicious rumours that they are one of the Bulger killers, likewise James Bulger's mother received a tip-off as to the whereabouts of Robert Thompson. The Home Office spent £13,000 on stopping a foreign magazine from publishing information about their new identities. Even those within the justice system cannot be trusted to be discrete: the only reason the Ministry of Justice announced that Venables was back in prison was to stop the Daily Mirror from being able to release the story first, after having received an anonymous tip-off from somebody in the know.

It seems we are a more vengeful nation now even than in the days of public executions in the 19th century. In 1861 in Stockport two-year-old George Burgess was killed by two eight-year-old boys in an almost uncannily similar case. Unlike in the Bulger case, the two boys' original charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter, and they then went on to spend five years in a reform school, a sentence which was greeting with loud approval from the public galleries, before being freed to live their adult lives unimpeded by the case. The Times at the time wrote of the folly in considering children to be legally accountable for their actions in the same way as adults, "What is the reason then," the leader writer asks, "why it should have been absurd and monstrous that these two children should have been treated like murderers?... As far as it went [their conscience] was a sound and a genuine a conscience as that of a grown man: it told them that what they were doing was wrong . . . [But] conscience, like other natural faculties, admits of degrees: it is weak, and has not arrived at its proper growth in children, though it has a real existence and a voice within them; it does not speak with that force and seriousness which justifies us in treating the child as a legally responsible being."

What interests me about that 1861 case most though was that the guilty boys' parents were able to continue their lives in their communities and their jobs without fear of reprisals. Not so for the Thompsons and the Venables in the 'humane' 1990s. The two families were immediately rehoused in unfamiliar towns and given false names, and were disowned by many of their friends and relatives. Even this wasn't the end of it for them: Ann Thompson allegedly had to go into hiding nine times in the following eight years after repeated attacks. It's a small mercy that the Bulger murder happened before the era of camera phones and Twitter. Even those with no involvement with the case at all didn't escape the public anger: in the days immediately after the murder, one 12-year-old boy who had been taken in for questioning amid an angry mob who had gathered on seeing a large press presence was later released without charge, but still had to be rehoused at a safe distance after the mob attacked his family's house.

I don't have children of my own and don't even have regular contact with any, but when I do see children aged around ten what strikes me is how different they are to us adults in practically every sense, whether it be the limited mental horizons, sense of empathy or sense of self-control. I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of their offence in any way, but when I think about what a typical ten-year-old's concept and experience is of punishment then being taken away from your family, being paraded in front of the world's media like a freak show during a three-week public trial conducted in the most formal of settings using procedures far beyond the comprehension level of one so young, having your name and photograph in practically every newspaper in the world and being forced to spend the rest of one's formative years in a very abnormal, closed-off environment with valid reason to be fearful of the outside world seems an extraordinarily harsh punishment, or at least that's how it seemed to my child-like mind at the time, and how it still does. My nine-year-old self simply could not comprehend anybody being in that much trouble.

The case seems an excellent example of the strength, or lack thereof, of our public institutions and procedures in the face of the angry mob. The many ways in which this case had to be treated differently to others because of fear of reprisals began early. Upon arriving at their respective secure units, the two boys were told to give false details of their ages and crimes in order not to identify them. As I have already mentioned, the families of the two boys had to be rehoused and to change their names, and the family of a boy who turned out to have nothing to do with the case was also not able to return home. After the angry scenes on the way to their first court appearance the main trial had to be moved to Preston, not only as a security measure but also for fear that the boys would not have been able to get a fair trial in their home city.

Upon sentencing, the trial judge made the crucial decision to allow the boys' names and photos to be published, in response to appeals from the media, 'because the public interest overrode the interests of the defendants and there was a need for informed debate on the crimes committed by young children'. In cases involving under-18s, the general custom is not to allow such details to be made public to allow the guilty party a chance to mature and reform without the burden of their past, but this is at the judge's discretion. In most developed countries there would have been a complete ban on releasing the boys' names as a concession to their age. With the intense public feeling regarding the case I can see nothing to have been gained from identifying the boys. The details of the case were already in the open, so who was to benefit from them being identified? If the boys had never been identified, then there would have been minimal risk of reprisals, saving the two boys most likely a lifetime of nightmares and fear, but also the eventual enforcement of new identities, not only at huge cost to the taxpayer but a huge psychological cost to them, condemning them to a lifetime of having to live a lie. It was the strain of living a lie, combined with the trauma of all that followed after the murder that drove Venables over the edge and left him unable to cope with his highly restricted and abnormal life. I just wonder how his life would be now if nobody had ever heard his name or seen his photo, and he hadn't essentially had both his hands tied behind his back by the terms of his parole licence. Most likely, 20 years on, the whole case would not be half as well known as it is.

The original term set by that same trial judge was a minimum of eight years. This was quickly increased to ten on appeal, then to 15 by then-Home Secretary Michael Howard, who had used the shift in public opinion caused by the case to reform the youth justice system in response to public calls for vengeance. This action later caused the power for politicians to set the length of prison terms to be taken away. At the time of the Bulger murder the concept of doli incapax existed in English law, a safeguard which put the onus on the prosecution to prove any defendant under age 14 knew right from wrong. This was abolished soon afterwards, though some other countries which inherited our legal system still have it, such as Australia.

This article goes into the details of the two boys' imprisonment and the lengths the authorities had to go to to ensure the boys' safety. Even a trip to the dentist entailed three bookings at different surgeries and two being cancelled at the last minute so almost nobody knew where the boy would be going - all this scheming and planning just for a routine child dental appointment. Even long after the murder and long after the boys' release the press are, and always will be forbidden to publish anything which may identify them, but this doesn't stop them from continuously using the case to generate faux-outrage: the tabloids know it is in the two men's interests to keep a low profile and that they won't jeopardise their anonymity and safety by coming into the public eye and suing them, so what have the tabloids to lose by gleefully writing libellous made-up stories? The News of the World illegally hacked Robert Thompson's mobile phone for years - where could they have got his number from, other than a serious security breach?

Such a visceral reaction at the time, given the shock and scale of the offence is one thing, but for the same level of hatred to be on display so many years later now that the 'boys' are 30-year-old men defies any rational explanation. Think of the worst single thing you did as children, and imagine being defined by this by an entire society now after all this time, without ever having been given a chance to publicly explain and redeem yourself! There can't be many of us who can think through our own childhood experiences without being reminded of at least one episode which was most likely different in scale to the Bulger murder, but not necessarily in essence.

To give one example from my own childhood: aged 11, in the summer between leaving primary and starting secondary school, I happened to meet a boy called Steve who'd be going to the same school. He was a fairly typical hard nut, and different from any of my other friends, but as I wouldn't know anybody else at my new school and from my first impressions of Steve I'd rather have him on my side than against me, why not try something new and reinvent myself a little in time for a fresh start? Playing outside with him one day, he took me to a house he knew was lived in by a man with learning difficulties. One thing Steve liked to do was climb into the man's back garden and make a noise until the man would come to the window and angrily shoo him away and shout incoherently, at which point Steve would just run off laughing. I didn't offer any resistance when he asked me to join in for the first time. Of course, on subsequent visits to the man's house we didn't stop there. Every few days when we would go past his house we would play in his garden, and when he shouted at us refuse to leave until he got wound up even more, or we would turn his garden taps on, or throw stones at his windows, or I would go to the front of his house and ring his doorbell repeatedly while Steve would shout abuse at him from his back garden. I remember gathering piles of dirt from his front garden and putting them through his letterbox. Steve was the dominant partner and I was slightly in awe of him and scared of him, but it would be wrong to say I didn't get any enjoyment out of inflicting cruelty.

I would never have done anything like this of my own accord, and if anybody had asked me at the time if I knew right from wrong the answer would have been a certain yes - I was far from a delinquent - and if any adult had intervened I certainly would have stopped doing it, but the thrill of doing something new and fun and exciting, and the fear of not wanting to let Steve think I was a wuss overrode the weak sense of conscience I had. We gave up tormenting the man after he stopped reacting to us and it stopped being fun. I don't remember what I thought must have been the reason he had stopped reacting to us and thought nothing of it until I read the local newspaper and saw the man's name in the obituary list: he had died of a heart attack, if memory serves me right only in his late fifties. I'll never know the extent of me being a contributing factor in his heart attack, but thinking back what is striking is that I remember only feeling a minimal sense of guilt, as if the man was just a pawn in our game. Aside from occasionally briefly remembering the man when I walked past his house in the years afterwards I never thought about what I had done at all. This is, of course, until 15 years later after Venables' re-arrest, something which caused me to think about the pure illogic of holding a man in his late twenties accountable for one joint piece of childhood misbehaviour as if he was still the same person who thought and behaved the same way, when it all suddenly came back to me in a hot flush in the middle of the night. What we did is not nearly in the same league as what the Bulger killers did, but I don't see how the principle is different. What I did was almost entirely out of character even then, and it certainly has no bearing on my conduct and sense of right and wrong as an adult, and the suggestion that it might do just sounds absurd. (The same can unfortunately not be said for Steve, however. He ended up being expelled from my school, and the last I heard of him, aged nineteen, he had been imprisoned for racially aggravated assault.)

The one aspect of the judicial response which I do think was appropriate was the length of the sentence and the ethos behind the institutions in which their sentences were served, where the emphasis is on much-needed rehabilitation and structure as opposed to pure punishment for punishment's sake. I am not denying that given the severity of the offence the public did need to be protected from the boys capable of it. For a ten-year-old being torn away from your family and denied your liberty and the chance to live a normal child's life seems like more than ample punishment in itself. Any longer than eight years and readjustment to the outside world would have been increasingly and counterproductively difficult, as they would have become more institutionalised. Furthermore, if they had been kept in the penal system later than age 18 - they were already the two oldest people ever to have been imprisoned in a secure unit - they would have been placed in a much harsher atmosphere of a young offenders' institution, which may likely have undone the expert work intended on making them fit for life in the outside world. As turning 18 for most people usually does represent the start of a new direction in life, it seems the most appropriate age to have released them.

What I absolutely disagree with was society's use of notoriety and press vilification as a supplementary punishment. The nature of the sequence of events before their arrests meant that there was always going to be a great deal of public interest in the case. In an ideal world, tabloid journalists would never have demonised those two to a greater extent than even the worst of adult murderers because the public would simply have found the whole spectacle too distasteful. A remnant of those press ethics was still evident in the infinitely more compassionate coverage of the Mary Bell murders a mere quarter-century earlier. Likewise, a government more secure in its position would have felt no need to use the case as a political football. Furthermore, while the psychologists dealing with the boys on their arrival in their secure units claimed that they were both traumatised from the events and were in need of therapy, this therapy was withheld from them for another nine months until after their trial for fear of contaminating the evidence, though neither boy took to the witness stand. I hope if and when any future similar case happens in the future this is no longer the procedure.

The Bulger case overshadows the child justice system so much that it will inevitably be brought up at any mention of raising the age of criminal responsibility from its current ten years, as if to suggest that a higher age would have meant Thompson and Venables getting away with their crime, but that simply isn't the case - the secure units such as those the two boys were sent to are part of the care system and not the penal system, and provision does exist to admit children to them who have not been charged with any crime. Even if they had been below the age of criminal responsibility at the time of the murder, they still almost certainly would have been taken away from their families and subjected to the same regime of structure and expert rehabilitative work. The laws would have allowed for them to have been kept there until age 18, the age they were in fact released. The only differences in how their case would have been treated had the age of criminal responsibility been higher is that they would never have been processed through the criminal justice system and traumatised by the intensity of the public eye and the formality and adversarial system of an adult court in what amounted to little more than a show trial. Their names and photos would never have been released, meaning that there would never have been anybody for the public hatred to focus on and they need never have faced a lifetime of fearing reprisals. Because of this, there would have been no need for them to be given a second identity and have the unenviable task of building friendships and relationships based on a web of secrecy and outright lies.

The biggest difference in their handling had they never been processed through the criminal justice system would have been that had they not been judged to have been rehabilitated by the age of 18, the State would have had no jurisdiction over them, and either way they would have been freed without any of the stringent terms of their licences. These terms include lifetime supervision by probation workers, not being allowed to contact each other, having to declare their address with the probation services and having to tell any perspective life partner who they once were, likewise being liable to be returned to prison for breaches of any of these terms or for any criminal behaviour which wouldn't necessarily result in imprisonment when done by a member of the general public. I must concede that some of these terms make full sense given the circumstances, and simply letting them go after such an offence and such an abnormal adolescence spent behind bars would have been extremely risky and perhaps setting the boys up to fail. There is a balance to be found somewhere.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales hasn't been changed in the intervening 20 years and remains lower than in almost all developed nations, often by several years. Scotland has recently raised its age from eight to 12, though I see little chance in England and Wales following suit so long as the Bulger case remains within living memory for most of the population. All minors charged with a crime which in an adult would carry a sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment or more are still tried in full adult courts. However, I do think lessons have been learnt from the failings of our structures in dealing with the Bulger case. In Edlington, South Yorkshire in 2009 there was a case of attempted murder involving two brothers aged 10 and 11 which bore many similarities with the Bulger case. From the information about the case which became available it arguably seemed worse in the level of violence used and lack of remorse shown on behalf of the two boys. Fortunately the victims survived the attack made on them, and though the brothers were demonised as 'savages' and 'demons' by the tabloid press this case did not generate the same level of public outcry. It was heartening that in this case the judge refused the appeals made from the press to allow the boys' identities to be revealed, though as procedure dictates, the trial was still conducted in public amidst all its normal formalities. In 2010, two boys in west London aged ten and eleven were convicted of rape in a public court, though the procedures were widely condemned even in the more sensationalist press as inappropriate, and in the words of the former Director for Public Prosections criticised as 'a spectacle that has no place in intelligent society', and which 'made demons of damaged children'. While I do think that our system for dealing with such crimes is still far from ideal, there are signs that progress is being made. The best I can hope for the next high-profile child murder case, whenever it comes, is that, to twist the words of our prime minister in 1993 about the Bulger case, we can 'condemn less and understand more'.
Nathan
 
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Heather » 09 Feb 2013, 22:38

Good essay, Nathan.

I had actually never heard of this murder case, being an American and only 6 years old at the time. I'm glad that I don't know the details!

I do remember Princess Diana's death and the sensation it caused. My parents (my mother especially) acted horrified at the news, and told us about it in a Very Serious Discussion, which I found bewildering because I had never actually heard of Diana, being too young to follow gossip columns and scandals. I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to cry or something, so I awkwardly went back to playing.

I have to say that my first reaction on reading your essay was irrational anger. I was very upset that you used all your empathy on the criminal boys, and not the victim himself (who happens to be just a few months older than my own son, and if this happened to him, I'd be calling for blood, or worse). I say this not to condemn you (as I said, it was an irrational feeling!), but to start a discussion about males and females and their roles in toxic sentimentality. Like many women, I'm more of a feeler than a thinker at heart, but that doesn't mean I'm incapable of being rational, and once I had thought about your essay I saw that I couldn't really find fault with your logic. So let's start there, with a woman's feelings toward a man's detached essay.

I am very fond of old novels, and something I see and admire in them is that men and women used to occupy separate spheres. Men were in charge of the public, the law, the detached and more or less rational sphere, and women were in charge of the private, empathic, interpersonal, homemaking sphere. There was a deep respect for the differences between men and women and how their strengths could be best applied.

Obviously, the private feminine sphere has recently been all but obliterated and the public masculine sphere has undergone a huge change. One could argue that it's been feminized, but I wonder if it's been both hyperfeminized and hypermasculinized.

One sees this in people all the time. We're supposed to be androgynous, and yet we just can't shake our biological natures. The result in women who deny their overall femininity is to become hyperfeminine (very emotional and overtly sexual) and also hypermasculine (very aggressive, bull-headed, and regimented), and I'd imagine that something similar happens in men. If this occurs in people, I think it can happen in male and female institutions as well.

Let's take the inherently masculine institution of Law. What would Law look like if it became hyperfeminine and hypermasculine? It would place an emphasis on emotion rather than detached logic, and it would aggressively seek harsh punishments (and/or waive punishments, depending on which heartstrings the case pulled) and rely on hard-and-fast rules rather than subtle interpretations. In the feminine realm of public opinion we'd see the same sort of thing: inappropriate levels of public emotion based on normal feelings of empathy, and inappropriate levels of aggression in seeking punishment for the crime.

My irrational feelings of anger were based on a feminine understanding of empathy, but tempered by other feminine traits such as gentleness and understanding; therefore I didn't become emotionally incontinent upon hearing about this nasty murder case and your interpretation of its aftermath. I think that maybe a lot of toxic sentimentality occurs because people and institutions are denying their masculinity or femininity, and then becoming both hypermasculine and hyperfeminine to compensate. When these "hyper" traits aren't tempered by other traits of masculinity and femininity, we see emotional incontinence, regimented rules, and runaway aggression.
Heather
 
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Rachel » 09 Feb 2013, 23:15

I wanted to thank you for writing that.

When I started reading I disagreed with you. I saw the James Bulger murder case as another incidence of the government being soft on crime.
On the face of it two 10 year olds take a toddler from it's Mum, bash and torture it death with bricks and iron on railway tracks. They then only get a few years in care as punishment. I thought that if they have have to suffer vigilantism and the press to make up for the government's usual softness, then that's good. They deserve it.

After reading to the end of your writing, I realised that I was wrong. It made a change to read another view.

I still don't like Jon Venables because of him being caught on child pornography charges as an adult. But the other boy involved deserves to be left alone. I did not think that before. You also raised some interesting points about how as children we can do bad things that we would never do as adults. I bullied a girl when I was 10 years old. I also was encouraged into it by another tougher girl who was the dominant partner in the bullying. It involved hitting and scratching her when no one was looking with a lot more of the mental and catty verbal bullying girls can be so good (or nasty) at. Our parents got involved and it was stopped. Just a few years later after growing up a little I would have never have dreamed of behaving like that and I still feel ashamed by it today. Your memory brought back that memory. I was interested by that Victorian case you mentioned.

I remember the Bulgar case. I was 15 or 16 and doing my GCSEs. As part of our English GCSE coursework our teacher told us to do an essay based on the Jamie Bulgar case and about crime and juvenile delinquency generally. We were encouraged to use the Jamie Bulgar dominated newpaper articles as a source. I had never been given an essay at school based on a current news item before. Yes you are right, it was the "first toxic sentimentality of our age".
Rachel
 
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Nathan » 10 Feb 2013, 13:56

Heather,

How glad I am to 'meet' someone who'd never heard of that case (though it was the first story on the NBC nightly news on the day of the verdict)! I've read a lot of reports of the case in the foreign press, eager to know what they make of the whole thing, and most are incredulous that such a murder could happen in the first place and at our society's way of dealing with it. I believe our way of reacting to it shames us in the eyes of the world. One Norwegian newspaper article written after Venables' re-arrest in 2010 said that it was just as disappointing that the strong feelings brought about the case had come back undimmed by the passage of time as that Venables had been re-arrested.

I generally avoid discussions about this because I don't like or agree with what most people have to say, but the "If this happened to my child then I'd want XXXX to happen" argument is put forward a lot. An easy counter to the emotive argument is "But what about if it was your son or daughter who was the guilty party, and what if he or she was genuinely contrite about what he or she had done?". It is best to try to leave the emotions of the victim out of the justice system as much as possible in my opinion, if for no other reason than some people in that situation would be much more forgiving than others. Talking about Norway again, in 1994 there was a case in Trondheim of a five-year-old girl killed by two six-year-old boys. The attitude of the mother and of Norwegian society could not have been more different to in Britain.

It's an interesting point you make too about the differences between men and women. It strikes a chord with me because I spent yesterday evening at a political meeting. Unsurprisingly of the 20 or so people who felt inclined to come along only three were women, and two of those the daughters of the main local activist. None of the women really contributed much of any note, so it was a male-dominated environment. The emphasis of the meeting was on the practical aspects of policymaking and how to get the word across.

This morning I then went to church, which despite a relatively good turnout of 25-30 people I would say was about 75% female, as were the two ministers leading the service. I like that church and find them all very nice and welcoming people, but I do think it puts much too much emphasis on the social work side of the church such as helping the homeless and its sister churches in Africa and less on actual substance and the tenets of the Gospel. I find it very hard to reconcile the touchy-feely ethos of the place now with the ethos behind the big plaque on the wall giving the long list of names of young men from the church who died in the two world wars and consider it the same entity. I hope you'll forgive me for pointing out that the first institution I mentioned is the fastest-growing political party in the country and the second is in terminal decline!
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Paul » 10 Feb 2013, 20:17

Nathan, I have read your posts and consider them rather good and thoughtful. However, I disagree with some of your reasoning and (some of) the conclusions.

I shall write some more at length on this subject but for now, here is a question for you.

How can you have a complete view of the crime, based upon experience? You have said you initially viewed the crime from the perspective of a nine-year old boy, ironically and coincidentally a similar age to that of the accused. I grant that your views may have matured and broadened but still I suggest your present views springs, in part, inescapably from your first perceptions. Crucially, you did not, have not and are still not able to view the crime from the perspective of a parent. You should see that your perception lacks this vital element?

Ironically and coincidentally maybe, I was but 4 months away from my 30th birthday when this crime occurred - presumably a similar age to yourself today. I did however, at that time, have a daughter just 4 months old and a son aged 5 (and a step-daughter aged 10). In addition I am I think, of a similar age to James Bulger's parents. Without wishing at all to denigrate your account (it is valuable from your perspective), I can assure you that my thoughts at the time (and thus since) would be very different to how you viewed the case.

More later.
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Nathan » 10 Feb 2013, 21:13

Paul, thank you for disagreeing with me - I was hoping that somebody would as we all same to share an opinion on so many of the issues raised on here perhaps too often. You are right in that I don't have the capacity to truly see it from the parents' perspective and that my views on the case are just a more reasoned version of my gut instinct at the time, which was, "It just doesn't feel right for everybody to be that angry at two little children my age and it doesn't make sense that everybody hates them more than any adult murderer I have ever heard of". If you think that being a parent yourself makes a crucial difference to how you perceive something like this then I'd be interested in hearing your reasons. Likewise I've always thought that being a child at the time and being able to see it from that perspective gives me an insight many lack, though anybody else about my age who completely disagrees with everything I've said is also very welcome to disagree!

In case there is any confusion, I am not at all denying that on some level they knew what they were doing was wrong, as otherwise they wouldn't have tried to hide what they did and later denied it when first questioned. I'm not at all denying that they posed a danger to the public and needed to be kept away from society until they were deemed by professionals to have been 'fixed' to a reasonable extent. My objection is to what I see as a disproportionate and illogical and quite frightening level of public outrage and the complete lack of forgiveness given the length of time involved since the case and how in any other situation it would be considered completely absurd to associate a 30-year-old with one thing he jointly did at age ten, never mind to still hold such strong feelings.
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Elliott » 13 Feb 2013, 22:33

Nathan, I've taken so long to reply to this because your OP is so interesting and thought-provoking that it left me somewhat stumped. If you don't mind me saying, I think it's an excellent essay. The reply I'm going to give will be very much a personal and subjective one, and I don't know if my reasoning will be relevant to anybody but me. I hope this does not contaminate or detract from your OP, which, though in parts very personal, is in other parts very analytical and detached.

I had just turned 10 when the Bulger case occurred. So, a year older than you and the exact same age as the murderers. I'd like to be able to tell you that I share your feelings about it and reacted at the time as you did, but in truth I can't remember how I reacted at the time, and my feelings about it as an adult have been very different from yours.

Back then, I think I felt quite detached from it; it was just something on TV. It was the same when 9/11 happened. As with most tragedies that I witness only through television, I struggled to conceive of what it meant and my disgust at it was superficial, not felt in the gut like I think happens with most people. Television is like that for me. Of course the murder was monstrous, but it was just an idea. The television made it seem no more "real" than if it were entirely fictitious. I saw that my mother was shocked by it, and I think I learned from her to be shocked by it too. In time, the emerging details made that easy.

It was a very gruesome murder. I'm going to suggest that the public reaction to it wouldn't have been nearly so vociferous had it been a more straightforward killing. I think it was the elaborateness of it, not to mention the length of time it must have gone on for, that disgusted and disturbed people. It is hard to avoid the assumption that the boys must have enjoyed doing what they did, otherwise they'd have stopped - so what would have been a pointless but simple act (murder) becomes an elaborate and confusing one.

I also think that the availability of CCTV imagery, showing the agonising moment when a toddler was taken away from his parents forever, has a great power to excite emotion in people. (As an adult, I can't look at that image without thinking "oh, God...") From there, it is very easy to start thinking awful things - what was Jamie's reaction when the torture started? That's a disturbing question and a heartbreaking mental image. What were the boys' reactions to their victim's terror? How could they elect not to stop? How could they continue until the end, and what explains the disgusting, depraved, unnecessary and bizarre mistreatments that paved Jamie's way to death? These are the questions that are provoked, and the more details one learns the more such questions come rolling out of an astonished mind, and since there is no rational answer to them, the mind defaults to entirely blackening the perpetrators as pure, simple evil. It feels like a satisfactory answer - and it probably is for most people's purposes, but for everyone else it is just a cop-out.

I will certainly not attempt to provide any "better" answers. I have no idea why Thompson and Venables (notice how we have no discomfort about referring to them by their surnames, even though they were only children at the time) did what they did. It seems to have been a fairly spontaneous act, decided upon at random during a day bunking off from school. I suspect that they also don't know why they did it. And whatever motivations did exist at the time, they must have seemed ever more absurdly inadequate as the boys grew into adults. I'm sure they're now as confused by what they did as the rest of us are.

I listened to the interview recordings you linked to. It's hard to believe that the children speaking had, just days earlier, done what they had done. There's a sense with Venables that the enormity of it was only sinking in because people were asking him questions about it, and it was clear he was "in big trouble". Perhaps, if he hadn't been caught, he'd never have said anything? He must have been acting normally right after he did it, otherwise his mother would have noticed something in his behaviour.

To return to how we, the public, feel about it... Twice in the last few years, I have been disgusted by people being liberal about the case.

A friend of mine said it was ridiculous to hold them responsible, and specifically said "they were just babies themselves". At the time, he was being filled with hippie claptrap at a teacher training college about how "wonderful" kids were, and I put this attitude towards the Bulger case down to that. I also, frankly, thought it was disgustingly insincere to describe a 10 year-old as a "baby".

The other person was a customer in the shop where I work. She used to come in and have long conversations with me about things and one time, for some reason, the Bulger case came up. She's a dreamy, trivial, very extrovert sort of woman who seems to pride herself on being a bit wise, a bit more understanding than most, because she's got this special eccentric outlook on things. Anyway, she said it wasn't right to hold the boys responsible because they were "just ten years old... they didn't know anything..." I immediately asked her if she had tortured and killed anyone when she was ten, to which she, downcast, replied simply "no".

In both cases, I very much assumed the moral high ground with the person, thinking them weak. I thought they were just looking for ways to absolve the boys in order to avoid the responsibility of condemning them. In my friend's case, I also thought he was using it to bolster his own emerging delusion about kids being "wonderful", better than adults, and virtually incapable of doing wrong.

As for what should have been done for/with/to the boys, I have never known. I have always found the public's rage towards them distasteful and rather absurd, and possibly that individuals were getting carried away with the crowd, having feelings that they simply wouldn't have had if they remained calm and away from the rabble. But I've also, always, felt exasperated and disgusted by people who have tried to let the boys off, as it were, or suggest that "they didn't know what they were doing". But I have to say that your post, Nathan, has really given me food for thought.

As much as anything, it was your pointing towards childhood misdemeanours that took me aback, because I realised that, indeed, in my childhood and even as a young adult I did things which I knew to be bad.

When I was four, I wanted to impress my big brother's best friend, who told me to spit on a third boy. I did so and was promptly taken to the headmaster's office where I was roared at, deservedly.

Around the same time, we pushed a boy into a muddy puddle - I have never forgotten the sight and sound of him crying, saying that, since "he" had now dirtied his clothes, his mum wouldn't take him to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which he had been looking forward to for weeks. It sounds such a silly, trivial concern now, to adult ears, but the poor boy was wailing about it, while everyone else laughed at him. I instantly felt ashamed of my part in his humiliation. In fact I've felt guilty about it ever since.

A few years later, we were living next door to a grumpy old man who had sheets of glass piled in his garden. My brother and I snuck into the garden one night and smashed the sheets of glass, joyfully. These are probably very typical, and comparatively minor, childhood misadventures.

At the age of 18, I was living in halls of residence with two girls, one of whom I was in love with and she had taken a bitchy disliking to the other girl. She bullied her, in a passive but unmistakeable way, and ironically in a way that I myself had been bullied several years before, so I certainly should have known better, especially as I was 18. But, I wanted to impress my friend, because I was in love with her, so I went along with her treatment of the other girl. It was never dreadful, or nearly as bad as I myself had suffered, and I'm not even sure it qualified as "bullying" in any real sense. It was more a repeated disinterest and dismissing of things the girl said. If it had happened to me, it would probably have been enough to make me wish I was living somewhere else, but then I'm much more paranoid and self-conscious than this girl was. It wouldn't surprise me if the girl, our "victim", wasn't really aware of the malice stacked up against her in secret. She never showed any sadness. She was a dreamy sort of character. Now, I'm not proud of what I did. I wish I could go back and give my 18 year-old self a slap, tell him to grow a backbone. At the time, I worried about whether we were upsetting her. I said to my friend "we shouldn't be so horrible to her" - which was really a pathetic way of asking her to stop it, so that I wouldn't have to go along with it anymore. As I say, pathetic.

Now, as is obvious just from the amount I've written about that last example compared to the things I did as a child, I feel far more guilty about it than about those other things. I feel far more of a need, and responsibility, to analyse it, whereas I feel the others can be quite easily dismissed as childhood misdemeanours. Maybe that's because I feel everyone reading this will expect me to feel more guilt about it. But I don't think so, because I have felt like this for a long time, long before this thread began.

At some level, I instinctively believe that I was more "responsible" at 18 than at 7, and therefore more guilty when I shirked those responsibilities. For some reason that is true even though the 7 year-old knew that what he was doing was wrong. In fact he knew he was doing wrong every bit as much as the 18 year-old did. So why do I feel that he was, still, less "guilty", less responsible, and therefore less deserving of punishment?

We knew it was wrong to smash those sheets of glass. We knew it would really annoy the grumpy old man. That was precisely why we did it! It wasn't that we wanted to hurt him; we didn't have any grudge against him or even a dislike of him. We simply wanted the thrill of doing something that was bad. We wanted - and delighted in - the sound of perfect virgin glass being instantly and permanently transformed into hundreds of ugly shards. We had no use for those shards. There was nothing to be gained from what we did. We did it simply to be bad. It was a thrill. It was fun.

I don't know if it is possible that the same motivation could cause someone to torture and kill. To be honest, I doubt it - and I also have a feeling that we might be indulgently trivialising what happened to Jamie Bulger by framing it alongside minor childhood stupidities.

Like (I suspect) most people, I'm torn between my gut and my mind with the Bulger case. My gut tells me that the only way somebody could torture and kill a defenceless, innocent and randomly-chosen toddler is if they were mentally deranged - evil, basically. But my mind tells me that it's much more complex and subtle than that, and that people (not just kids) can switch off their conscience when it is inconvenient, or when they're enjoying doing a bad thing, or when they're fascinated by something (and I expect that murdering a person is fascinating, in that it is the most unusual thing anyone could ever do). So, when two 10 year-olds find themselves alone with a toddler, and they've hurriedly backed themselves into a corner by agreeing with each other that they're going to kill him, and neither wants to lose face by letting the other down, and then they proceed to do it by harming him in progressively more disgusting ways, I can imagine that the sheer strangeness of the experience would take them over, and they would "switch off" any voices telling them to stop. Eventually cold-hearted detachment would take over - "what happens if we do this? - "he's making too much noise, we'll get caught if we don't hurry up" - "how to hide the body, we don't want to be found out" - and from there everything would happen quite mechanically.

Ironically, the above could surely apply to somebody of any age, not just a 10 year-old. Conscience is not the omnipresent thing we like to think it is. (I'm not even sure why we like to think that.) It is controllable, it can be switched off, even if just temporarily. We could say that conscience has a permanent intellectual effect but a limited emotional effect. If you've done a bad thing, you can feel guilty, if you want to, but you can also put it off for a while, or forever. And as for the intellectual effect, well, you can treat an idea any way you want.

I believe this, and I think it is a vitally important point, because it possibly explains how Thompson and Venables could do what they did, actually quite easily. It explains that they did not have to be "evil" to do it, and therefore that, though they did a grotesquely evil thing, they are not evil in themselves, any more than most of us are.

Our expectations of adults differ from our expectations of children in that we expect adults to be more responsible. The emotional side of conscience is actually irrelevant: we expect them to obey the intellectual side of it. If they know, intellectually, that something is wrong, we expect them to not do it. We expect them to be far more in control of themselves, their temptations and their appetites than we do children. As a psychological result of that, we conveniently let ourselves believe that only adults are capable of the truly horrible things, since only they can control themselves and relent, while children are basically harmless. Therefore, when a child does something truly horrible like murder, we find ourselves completely taken by surprise. It doesn't fit into the framework that we've built and it confuses us. We react by placing them in the category of "adult": if they are capable of doing such a dreadful thing, they must also have the adult mental apparatus to hold back from doing it.

But all of that is quite fictitious. I think that, by and large, people of all ages are prevented from doing evil by two things: a fear of being caught, and/or a love of goodness for its own sake. Conscience is not a reliable enough deterrent.

There's one other point I'd like to address from Nathan's OP, and it is the story of George Burgess from 1861. I was very intrigued to read about this as it sheds a very fresh light on the James Bulger case.

A lot of people, probably most people in modern Britain, tend to think that law and justice prior to 1968 was barbaric and ignorant. But we can see that it was no such thing. I will not say much about the legal judgement of 1861, though, because I am completely unsure whether it was right or wrong to downgrade George Burgess's murder to manslaughter and to "go easy" on his killers.

What interests me more is the public reaction, which could hardly be more different from that of the 1993 public towards the Bulger case. It suggests indeed that the Britain of 1861 was far more civilised than that of 1993.

Clearly, the public had faith in the justice system and were prepared to accept that it had done the right thing; they were prepared to accept its judgement. I think this is where the rioting mob of 1993 are so different: they believed that the justice system would somehow, inevitably, in some way, not be nearly hard enough on the Bulger killers, and also that they had every right to, to whatever extent feasible, make their feelings known and even punish the killers themselves, and when that was not possible, punish the killers' parents.

I am wary of slotting everything into my pre-brewed view of British societal history, but it seems to me that the braying rabble who threw objects at the police vans containing Thompson and Venables simply had no faith or confidence in their society; faith and confidence which, in Victorian times, were abundant.
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Paul » 14 Feb 2013, 23:59

Sorry for the delay Nathan. I wrote some of this the other day and have had to come back to it to finish and do some additions and editing.

As I said in my original, shorter post, a good and thoughtful post by Nathan (and now Elliott) and raises some fair points but I will have to offer a different view on some of them, though not all.

Heather's post was very good too and raised some subtle and interesting thoughts.

You say that the case is the first occasion of sentimentality (and then much else of a darker nature) in response to an horrific crime. Before we go any further it will surely be accepted that the murder of children is always going to top the lists for public reaction, followed by the murder of women and/or old people, probably in equal measure, depending on the savagery or severity of attack. The murder of a child by children compounds the issue and whether we like it or not, society finds this on first reflection (probably) frightening, which then gives rise to a certain abhorrence.

Any aspect of torture or prolonged attack is bound to increase public reaction, in any case. So is kidnap and abduction, as opposed to a random attack or a sudden losing of control. It involves a degree of planning and ample opportunity before the final act to abort the crime. More than one assailant is also an aggravating factor in any murder. Unfortunately, all these factors were present in this case, which surely compounded the guilt?

In fact, it's not just public reaction with regard to these aggravating factors - it's the view of the judiciary too. Whatever we may think about the mechanisms of the law, I would say that the public and the juiciary are broadly of one mind with regard to a view of severity in cases of murder. And so the law itself regards certain factors as aggravating in murder cases. Bulger's killers aggravated their crime in more than one way. The reaction is typical and I say natural, though it is disagreeable to see baying mobs pelting the prison vans or hurling abuse outside court.

The 1861 case is interesting in its treatment of the offenders but let's not go too far down the road of revisionism or rose-tinted history. People did also still attend public executions. One hundred years later, people still queued up outside prisons awaiting the hour of (now private) execution for condemned murderers.

I agree though that not all was blood-thirsty mobs. The account is very interesting and not hitherto known to me. I've learned something else here.

I don't think the death of Diana is a true parallel to this case. If people were really pushed on the issue I think they would still find the Bulger murder more distatsteful than Diana's death. The latter was more (faux) bereavement than outrage or horror and the cynic in me says that a whole lot of people in modern Britain would have used her funeral as an excuse simply for a day off work. I agree with the sentimentality tag in Diana's case and that people would have thrown in a good amount of this sentimentality on their 'day off', to somewhat justify it, to themselves as much as to others. In addition, I wonder how many people in the UK got drunk that day?

It may be that the level of public sentiment was the first you had experienced in such a case. After all, such cases are extremely rare so it's not as if any of us have a great deal of expereince to draw upon. But I can't fully agree that no great emotion had ever been shown towards certain crimes, though a crucial difference is of course that the perpetrators are almost always adults.

Still, Mary Bell is or was notorious, though now largely forgotten. I remember hearing about her, in the late 1960s. I will accept that the media coverage was less lurid than 25 years later. You are correct there - a symptom indeed of our modernising times. The case wasn't entirely anonymous though. After her conviction the press ran the story in some depth and for quite a time and in addition the story kept cropping back up in the press through the 1970s, not least because her own mother kept selling stories about her I believe. I remember a few of these articles.

I did know that Bell was tried and convicted of manslaughter but recall that her diminished responsibility was however accorded to a degree of psychopathy, as testified in court, as much as her minority ever was. She was still sentenced to 'Her Majesty's Pleasure' by the trial judge, a sentence not mandatory for the offence of manslaughter.

A case even more notorious from that era and generating public reaction for 40 years and more was that of child-killer Myra Hindley, who was of course an adult, though still young. The outrage and fury probably eclipses the Bulger case.

It's interesting that in your first mention of Mary Bell you said "....11 year old Mary Bell in Newcastle murdered two young children...." But Mary Bell was never, as you later noted, convicted of murder. But in your mind, initially, you view her and describe her as a murderess. Only later, thinking about the case do you accept (and tacitly agree?) that she is guilty of manslaughter instead.

But yes, it is curious that other similar crimes (though few and you only really quote one other in the modern age) do not attract the same public and media attention.

Finally, on the matter of notoriety and change of policy, there was a huge public reaction to the crimes of Ian Huntley in 2002 (murered two schoolgirls for those unfamiliar) and towards the murder of the schoolgirl Sarah Payne, of which case effected a change in the law due to the campaigning of her mother. You cannot say either that the case of Fred and Rose West didn't attract attention for a long time.

I wouldn't say the Bulger killers are treated worse by the press and public than are other notorious (adult) child-killers. Other than it may be (seen as) worse because of their minorities. The public would quite readily lynch Huntley, West, Sutcliffe and quite a few more given half a chance. Not that I agree with this at all.

I would support Capital Punishment for certain crimes, but never apply it to a minor. Nor would I agree to subject a minor to a whole-life term.

I do agree that the snarling rage towards these offenders, by the public and in the way you describe is wrong and ultimately damaging for us all and including those doing the snarling. It's always bound to happen though. Public executions once, as you noted, and as you will know, they were reputedly well-attended and popular events. I can believe that. I can't agree that we are somehow more vengeful today than in the days of public executions. We may turn out to be similar if there were public executions again but the fact is there aren't ...... because in many ways we aren't that vengeful. Actually I may be wrong there. On a referendum we would probably see a return to Capital Punishment.

The press are another matter, who should behave more responsibly. Unfortunately, the British press, as we know too well......

When the story broke, 20 years ago, there was obviously saturation coverage by all the newspapers. I will never forget one copy of 'The Sun', maybe the same copy you mention, which had massive headlines on the front page and then ran the story in lurid depth and from every angle possible, up to page 15! On the very next page was, at last, a break from the grisly reporting. What was the first 'new' story? It was something about seduction by an older woman towards a younger man and was reported in that 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' style that The Sun and co were/are infamous for. I found it utterly distasteful, beyond the usual low for that newspaper, in light of the main topic of news of which they had seen fit to gleefully report upon for 15 pages. Hypocrites! There we were, back to the business of titillation and voyeurism. I felt like screaming down the phone (to The Sun) that this kind of 'news' and the style of its reporting was, in some way, the cause (or part of it) of these terrible crimes that occur.

The way I saw the crime at the time was from a different perpective than you. Whilst you may have looked at the plight of the accused (being about your age), I looked at the impact of the crime and imagined with horror what that entailed. Probably subconciously I was affected by the crime, in so far as fear for your children was in the mind that bit more. This affects your thinking and how can it be presumed not to? It's good that you have presented the view from the persective of a nine-year old but you cannot ignore the feeling that parents may have. I think James Bulger's mother is more or less the same age as me. I could imagine very much how she would be feeling.

Edit: She's four years younger than me I discover. A mere 25 then, when her son was murdered. I think James was her 2nd child, but her first was stillborn, so in effect James was her first and she would be all the more attached to him. How utterly terrible for her then.

The Sentence: Was a mandatory one for murder - Detained during her Majesty's Pleasure, which incidentally would have become a Life Sentence on the date of their 21st birthdays, each respectively. They haven't served their sentence as has been stated - they are still serving it and will continue to do so until death.

The tariff given by the trial judge was a minimum of eight years. On appeal this was raised to ten years. The fact they were then released after eight years seems to me a mockery of the Appeal Court. If, in reverse, a criminal appeal successfully lowered a sentence, there would be outrage if that were ignored and the prisoner served longer.

I do agree that the power of politicians be limited in the setting of individual sentences. I feel it's a matter best left to the judiciary, the experts, and who are an arm of the historic government of England, but separate from parliament. The Home Secretary Michael Howard increased the minimum sentence to 15 years, which was later ruled an unlawful decision by the House of Lords.

In my opinion they didn't serve long enough in custody. Eight years is not a long time for such an act. It is fair to say that this 8 years represents vitually all their teenage years and to lose them must be a terrible thing, but the same could be said for a person locked up at aged 20 until aged 28. That decade (the 20s) represents the first emergence into the adult world, the likelihood of a career beginning, a graduation, a serious relationship, even marriage and children. To lock someone up in those years would be to seriously lessen the chances of those things. The same could be said for the 30s or 40s - settling into career and promotion, seeing your children mature to adulthood, becoming finally more comfortably affluent, etc. The fact is that 8 years in prison is bad for anyone at any age and so, for certain crimes (only the worst), I don't think we should feel more reluctant to pass them based on the age of the convicted. And in fact I think there are lesser crimes (multiple and continual burglary and rape for eg) that should attract a sentence of 8 years, (but these days often do not), so we would all be safer and less prone to loss. If this is the case, then the murder of a child must rank far more serious.

No exact details of the manner of the murder have been mentioned on this thread. They are out there on the web and frankly make for horrific reading. Don't forget also that the same two accused had attempted to abduct another two-year old boy earlier the same day, but had been thwarted by the boy's mother. Then there's the matter of Venables' continuing criminality, and of a disturbing nature.

It's 20 years ago and you say we should not equate the mind and outlook of a 30 year old with that of a ten year old boy, presumably no matter what they have done as that ten year old. Really? How can you be so sure? In any case, they were released after 8 years. On the basis that is long enough in prison (and they weren't actually in a prison), do you think the outlook of an eighteen year old is far enough from that of a ten year old? I can tell you that the outlook of a 50 year old is somewhat different to that of a 30 year old, but that wouldn't excuse anything I had done aged thirty. Granted both those ages are definitively adult. I think if they had served 15 years, admittedly a long time, then justice would have been better served and they could have been monitored into adulthood. As it was, they were released on the threshold of adulthood, all new territory for them as for everyone and nobody really knew what might happen.

Back to Venables. He was convicted of pornographic images on his computer, ones that involved two-year old children being raped. He posed online and in chatrooms as a 35 year old woman with an eight year old daughter, in the hope of furthering child pornography activity. All this just two or three years ago. It really is all too much.

Nathan, you asked why there would be a different perception by a parent as opposed to a non-parent. It's a matter of experience surely? All parents will remember their two-year olds. It's probably the best age to observe your children. They are up on their feet by then and beginning to talk and make rapid observations about their world. They are usually weaned and have begun to join in the family meals (to great amusement). They are still at home, being pre-school. They are beginning toilet-training with some success. It's all good and quite a magical time. Then they grow up ......... and begin throwing stones at the neighbour's greenhouse !!

It's not to say other ages of your children are less important, obviously.

But experience surely counts for how you feel about something? In fact it's been affirmed on another thread here today.

Thanks.

PS: Elliott - for deliberately smashing all that poor man's glass panels, being yelled at would have been below the absolute minimum. Our feet wouldn't have touched the ground, almost literally. Walloped, detained indoors for possibly weeks with an opus of imaginary (or created) homework and fined all pocket money until it was paid for.
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Nathan » 15 Feb 2013, 18:52

Thank you Elliott and Paul for two excellent contributions - if only I had time to reply to them both at the moment! I'll reply to yours later, Paul, but I'll reply to Elliott's now:

Elliott wrote:
It was a very gruesome murder. I'm going to suggest that the public reaction to it wouldn't have been nearly so vociferous had it been a more straightforward killing. I think it was the elaborateness of it, not to mention the length of time it must have gone on for, that disgusted and disturbed people. It is hard to avoid the assumption that the boys must have enjoyed doing what they did, otherwise they'd have stopped - so what would have been a pointless but simple act (murder) becomes an elaborate and confusing one.

I also think that the availability of CCTV imagery, showing the agonising moment when a toddler was taken away from his parents forever, has a great power to excite emotion in people. (As an adult, I can't look at that image without thinking "oh, God...") From there, it is very easy to start thinking awful things - what was Jamie's reaction when the torture started? That's a disturbing question and a heartbreaking mental image. What were the boys' reactions to their victim's terror? How could they elect not to stop? How could they continue until the end, and what explains the disgusting, depraved, unnecessary and bizarre mistreatments that paved Jamie's way to death? These are the questions that are provoked, and the more details one learns the more such questions come rolling out of an astonished mind, and since there is no rational answer to them, the mind defaults to entirely blackening the perpetrators as pure, simple evil. It feels like a satisfactory answer - and it probably is for most people's purposes, but for everyone else it is just a cop-out.

I will certainly not attempt to provide any "better" answers. I have no idea why Thompson and Venables (notice how we have no discomfort about referring to them by their surnames, even though they were only children at the time) did what they did. It seems to have been a fairly spontaneous act, decided upon at random during a day bunking off from school. I suspect that they also don't know why they did it. And whatever motivations did exist at the time, they must have seemed ever more absurdly inadequate as the boys grew into adults. I'm sure they're now as confused by what they did as the rest of us are.


You certainly have a point in the brutality of the murder playing a major part in how strongly it was perceived, though there have been plenty of other murders just as brutal since then. I didn't want to go into why they did it and what their motivations were in my OP because frankly I have no idea and I didn't want to go into psychobabble, but I'm confident that even they would never have been able to explain it even to themselves, especially not after so long.

For what it's worth, which I'm not claiming is of all that much value, I think they made it up as they went along. They'd spent the day having fun in fairly minor acts of delinquency, then thought they'd go one step further and 'get a child lost'. Once they had got a child lost, what to do with him?

I've read most of the books on the case but not for some years so my memory and chronology might be wrong, but they tried to coax him into falling into the canal but to no avail, so one of them dropped him on his head or hit him in some way causing a suspicious-looking bruise on his forehead, which meant if they had given him up afterwards there would have been awkward questions to answer.

They took him on quite a long walk towards their own neighbourhood, where there was a strong chance of meeting people they knew and potentially facing more awkward questions as to what they were doing, then it got dark, James must have been becoming more distressed and more of a nuisance (for want of a better word) to them, and they saw that there was no easy way out for them and they had got out of their depth into a serious situation they couldn't easily get themselves out of, so decided to do what they did, with neither one of them feeling capable of backing down and both of them using the opportunity to unleash whatever frustration and whatever curiosity was inside them and just hope for the best in terms of getting away with it.

I hope it doesn't sound flippant to mention the darkness as a contributory factor, but as far as I am aware they couldn't properly see what they were doing, which at least to some degree must have stopped them from fully realising the enormity of what it all. It's very hard for me to get my head around what they must have been thinking too, or what must have been in their minds going to sleep that night. Yet, not wanting to trivialise the issue at all, can you really understand what goes on inside the heads of most other murderers, or rapists, or those responsable for most other crimes committed in cold blood?

As much as I don't feel comfortable reading or listening to most conventional opinion on this case, there is some more reasoned debate out there. This site covers the many updates to the story, and there is one interesting thought on the case, which I hope the person will not mind me quoting here:

Virgil wrote:In my opinion, the most plausible explanation for why James Bulger died is a PTSD-induced panic/rage reaction on Venables’ part. Google “Private Needham’s War” for a traguc story about what untreated severe PTSD can lead people to do: the violence can be extreme, lethal, savage, and horrific. But there’s an evolutionary purpose for this! Such sudden, quicksilver outpourings of unparalleled violence can literally save our lives in life-and-death emergencies! The problem is if the trauma-induced rage reaction is not allowed to complete its cycle at the right time and pointed at the right target, it can become stored up in the cells of the body and suddenly erupt like a volcano, terrifyingly, at the wrong time, directed at the wrong target. That’s what happened to poor Private Needham and the girlfriend he brutally killed.

I believe Venables intentionally threw a few stones and paint at James, and when James started shrieking, screaming, and crying hysterically after the paint landed in his eye, that triggered panic – consequently rage – consequently violence of the most extreme sort on Venables’ part.

David James Smith believes Venables was sexually abused, but I’m not sure. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Even without sexual abuse, he was physically and emotionally abused by his own mother, badly bullied by other chldren in school and around the neighbourhood, and was reported by Smith and Gitta Sereny to have undergone an operation for his squint: that very operation is known to trauma experts to often trigger terrible PTSD in children (the child’s eye is sliced and diced – in the wild, such an act would signify a deadly predator attack), and if the child comes from a dysfunctional family, the probability of a bad outcome skyrockets.

I doubt Thompson would’ve become violent had he not been in Venables’ company that day. Had Venables not been with Thompson, he probably wouldn’t have committed such an exceptionally violent act either but he still would, I believe, have been violent – he already had manifested violence towards a classmate.


Elliott wrote:At some level, I instinctively believe that I was more "responsible" at 18 than at 7, and therefore more guilty when I shirked those responsibilities. For some reason that is true even though the 7 year-old knew that what he was doing was wrong. In fact he knew he was doing wrong every bit as much as the 18 year-old did. So why do I feel that he was, still, less "guilty", less responsible, and therefore less deserving of punishment?

We knew it was wrong to smash those sheets of glass. We knew it would really annoy the grumpy old man. That was precisely why we did it! It wasn't that we wanted to hurt him; we didn't have any grudge against him or even a dislike of him. We simply wanted the thrill of doing something that was bad. We wanted - and delighted in - the sound of perfect virgin glass being instantly and permanently transformed into hundreds of ugly shards. We had no use for those shards. There was nothing to be gained from what we did. We did it simply to be bad. It was a thrill. It was fun.


I agree with the last part - children often do get a sense of gratification through being bad. Perhaps it's the joy of feeling a sense of power in a life which is otherwise powerless and dominated by things they can't do. If my experiences are anything to go by, they know what they are doing is wrong, they just don't care in the same way that an adult does. As a child I often remember thinking whenever my parents or other adults misinterpreted my behaviour that they simply weren't on the same wavelength and didn't understand how a child's mind works, and that when I was an adult I would go one better than them and try to remember what it was like to think like a child and understand the differences. Needless to say, now I don't have any contact with children from one week to the next I can't really make sense of just how their minds are different, only understand that they are.

Elliott wrote:Like (I suspect) most people, I'm torn between my gut and my mind with the Bulger case. My gut tells me that the only way somebody could torture and kill a defenceless, innocent and randomly-chosen toddler is if they were mentally deranged - evil, basically. But my mind tells me that it's much more complex and subtle than that, and that people (not just kids) can switch off their conscience when it is inconvenient, or when they're enjoying doing a bad thing, or when they're fascinated by something (and I expect that murdering a person is fascinating, in that it is the most unusual thing anyone could ever do). So, when two 10 year-olds find themselves alone with a toddler, and they've hurriedly backed themselves into a corner by agreeing with each other that they're going to kill him, and neither wants to lose face by letting the other down, and then they proceed to do it by harming him in progressively more disgusting ways, I can imagine that the sheer strangeness of the experience would take them over, and they would "switch off" any voices telling them to stop. Eventually cold-hearted detachment would take over - "what happens if we do this? - "he's making too much noise, we'll get caught if we don't hurry up" - "how to hide the body, we don't want to be found out" - and from there everything would happen quite mechanically.

Ironically, the above could surely apply to somebody of any age, not just a 10 year-old. Conscience is not the omnipresent thing we like to think it is. (I'm not even sure why we like to think that.) It is controllable, it can be switched off, even if just temporarily. We could say that conscience has a permanent intellectual effect but a limited emotional effect. If you've done a bad thing, you can feel guilty, if you want to, but you can also put it off for a while, or forever. And as for the intellectual effect, well, you can treat an idea any way you want.

I believe this, and I think it is a vitally important point, because it possibly explains how Thompson and Venables could do what they did, actually quite easily. It explains that they did not have to be "evil" to do it, and therefore that, though they did a grotesquely evil thing, they are not evil in themselves, any more than most of us are.


I couldn't agree more. Given how children can be cruel and curious much more than most adults it's a wonder why this sort of thing doesn't happen more often. I don't have any statistics to hand, but whenever I read of the life stories of famous murderers it's noticeable how they don't have a criminal or unusual past and often their murders are the only major cruel act they have perpetrated.

Reading about the human stories behind some of the Holocaust atrocities it's hard to associate the things that went on with the sheer numbers of normal, well-balanced, often well-educated, to all outward appearances 'decent' people the perpetrators often were before the war. It was shocking to many observers of the trial how 'normal' Thompson and Venables appeared and how though their backgrounds were bad, they really weren't any worse than so many other children. Given the wrong dynamics, wrong life experiences and wrong circumstances I suspect more of us would be capable of such a thing that we might like to admit. Perhaps it's the subconscious realisation of that that contributed to such a visceral public reaction, particularly in the city where it happened - how could 'two of them' do such a thing?

Elliott wrote:What interests me more is the public reaction, which could hardly be more different from that of the 1993 public towards the Bulger case. It suggests indeed that the Britain of 1861 was far more civilised than that of 1993.

Clearly, the public had faith in the justice system and were prepared to accept that it had done the right thing; they were prepared to accept its judgement. I think this is where the rioting mob of 1993 are so different: they believed that the justice system would somehow, inevitably, in some way, not be nearly hard enough on the Bulger killers, and also that they had every right to, to whatever extent feasible, make their feelings known and even punish the killers themselves, and when that was not possible, punish the killers' parents.

I am wary of slotting everything into my pre-brewed view of British societal history, but it seems to me that the braying rabble who threw objects at the police vans containing Thompson and Venables simply had no faith or confidence in their society; faith and confidence which, in Victorian times, were abundant.


I too am wary of judging an entire society on its reaction to one incident but I think another angle which to use to approach it was that by the 1990s we were supposed to have been living in this post-everything Brave New World where all the structures that kept society functioning for centuries would no longer be needed, and then all of a sudden it became obvious that this was no Brave New World and society had no framework to make sense of what was happening. I don't know how the 1860s lived up to whatever expectations the 1820s and 1830s had of it, but they had a moral framework to understand the Burgess case because they didn't expect everything to make perfect logical sense to them or to be fully masters of their own destiny. To quote from the Independent article:

It would seem to underline the comparative moral stability of society then - in the sense that good and evil were firmly established in people's minds - that it was believed that if a child had been "evil" ("moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil", as it stated in the coroner's inquisition), then he could be helped, in time, to become "good". There was hope. And because the blame was put on an outside agent, ie the devil, the children would not be condemned forever, and the parents could be absolved from any responsibility.
Nathan
 
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Re: The James Bulger murder case

Postby Nathan » 21 Feb 2013, 15:38

Paul, apologies for the delay in replying to you.

Paul wrote:You say that the case is the first occasion of sentimentality (and then much else of a darker nature) in response to an horrific crime. Before we go any further it will surely be accepted that the murder of children is always going to top the lists for public reaction, followed by the murder of women and/or old people, probably in equal measure, depending on the savagery or severity of attack. The murder of a child by children compounds the issue and whether we like it or not, society finds this on first reflection (probably) frightening, which then gives rise to a certain abhorrence.

Any aspect of torture or prolonged attack is bound to increase public reaction, in any case. So is kidnap and abduction, as opposed to a random attack or a sudden losing of control. It involves a degree of planning and ample opportunity before the final act to abort the crime. More than one assailant is also an aggravating factor in any murder. Unfortunately, all these factors were present in this case, which surely compounded the guilt?


Logically, the murder of a child would always top the lists for public reaction, but there are dozens of murders of children every year in this country (largely infanticides) which remain unreported outside their local area and are quickly forgotten, so there is more than mere straightforward rationale behind the public reaction to this case. You are of course right about the worrying level of violence, the abduction element and the fact they didn't take any of the many opportunities to abort their crime adding to the fire, something which I should have made clearer in my OP.

While from a legal standpoint having more than one assailant is an aggravating factor, and so it should be, from my perspective trying to look at it from the human side trying to make sense of the level of public outrage I prefer to see the two boys involved as individuals, disattached from their crime as far as possible. I can't possibly see either of them being capable of doing what they did alone - this was a real case of folie à deux.

Paul wrote:In fact, it's not just public reaction with regard to these aggravating factors - it's the view of the judiciary too. Whatever we may think about the mechanisms of the law, I would say that the public and the juiciary are broadly of one mind with regard to a view of severity in cases of murder. And so the law itself regards certain factors as aggravating in murder cases. Bulger's killers aggravated their crime in more than one way. The reaction is typical and I say natural, though it is disagreeable to see baying mobs pelting the prison vans or hurling abuse outside court.


You may be right that the [public, or judicial?] reaction is typical and natural, though if you are talking about the public reaction I hope you are wrong. If you think that level of anger is typical and natural then that says more about our society than the crime and suggests to me that the public used those two boys as a scapegoat to vent their own insecurities, because in other societies the reaction to similar crimes has been very different. Admittedly I cannot find a child murder of the same magnitude, but I've mentioned the child murder case in Norway in 1994. In the aftermath the parents of the children attending the same school as the perpetrators held a meeting to discuss the case and the guilty boys were allowed to continue at the same school, and there were no reprisals against them or their families.

In the same year as the Bulger case there was a tramp in Paris beaten to death by three young boys aged between 8 and 10 urged on by an adult tramp and then thrown into a pit while still alive. One of the boys judged to have been the more dominant force was placed in a children's home, the other two returned to their families, and there were no public reprisals against them. Indeed, this article (apologies, but Google Translate doesn't work for this one) recounts an interview with one of the three boys, who seemed shockingly normal.

The United States is often used by both its supporters and its detractors as a country which is especially tough on juvenile crime. In many ways it is, but not so in Chicago in 1995 when two boys aged 10 and 11 lured a five-year-old boy to an empty 14th-floor apartment and dropped him off the balcony to his death because he would not steal sweets for them. The boys were not named, much as in the other two examples, and were sent to a youth home for a maximum of ten years. Unlike in the Bulger case the court hearing was also brief and did not dwell on the details of the young boy's death. Among all child murder cases I have heard of in developed countries in recent times, it's our society that is the odd one out.


Paul wrote:It may be that the level of public sentiment was the first you had experienced in such a case. After all, such cases are extremely rare so it's not as if any of us have a great deal of expereince to draw upon. But I can't fully agree that no great emotion had ever been shown towards certain crimes, though a crucial difference is of course that the perpetrators are almost always adults.

Still, Mary Bell is or was notorious, though now largely forgotten. I remember hearing about her, in the late 1960s. I will accept that the media coverage was less lurid than 25 years later. You are correct there - a symptom indeed of our modernising times. The case wasn't entirely anonymous though. After her conviction the press ran the story in some depth and for quite a time and in addition the story kept cropping back up in the press through the 1970s, not least because her own mother kept selling stories about her I believe. I remember a few of these articles.

I did know that Bell was tried and convicted of manslaughter but recall that her diminished responsibility was however accorded to a degree of psychopathy, as testified in court, as much as her minority ever was. She was still sentenced to 'Her Majesty's Pleasure' by the trial judge, a sentence not mandatory for the offence of manslaughter.

A case even more notorious from that era and generating public reaction for 40 years and more was that of child-killer Myra Hindley, who was of course an adult, though still young. The outrage and fury probably eclipses the Bulger case.


Your first point is interesting: this case was the first time I had experienced that level of strong sentiment, and that probably is why it made such an impression on me at the time. I realise that it's very unusual for a nine-year-old to have felt personally affected by a news event that had nothing to do with him and to still feel the same way after so long.

You are right about the suspicions of Mary Bell being a psychopath played a part in her charge being reduced to manslaughter as much as her age - I had forgotten that part. I only remember Myra Hindley as yesterday's news so I can't say how strong the outrage was at the time, but you were alive when it happened and I wasn't, and you are from the part of the country affected and I'm not, so I'll take your word for it. The outrage should be higher in her case, considering she was not only a grown adult with all the added expectations and responsibilities that entails but she killed five children as opposed to one.

Paul wrote:It's interesting that in your first mention of Mary Bell you said "....11 year old Mary Bell in Newcastle murdered two young children...." But Mary Bell was never, as you later noted, convicted of murder. But in your mind, initially, you view her and describe her as a murderess. Only later, thinking about the case do you accept (and tacitly agree?) that she is guilty of manslaughter instead.

Finally, on the matter of notoriety and change of policy, there was a huge public reaction to the crimes of Ian Huntley in 2002 (murered two schoolgirls for those unfamiliar) and towards the murder of the schoolgirl Sarah Payne, of which case effected a change in the law due to the campaigning of her mother. You cannot say either that the case of Fred and Rose West didn't attract attention for a long time.


You got me on the 'murderer' description - that was a pure mistake, since corrected. You are right about the Ian Huntley and Sarah Payne cases causing a major reaction and changes to policy too, but I can't help but think the Bulger case, though nearly a decade older, will retain its notoriety for longer. Fred and Rose West's crimes did attract attention for a long time, but the again, the scale is much larger: we are talking here about more than ten murders over two decades, plus the shock factor about the wife who surely must have known and the sexual element to those crimes, plus the grisly fact of bones being hidden on the premises which gave that case an added power to shock the public, as who knows what could have been buried under your patio? It's the 20th anniversary of the Fred West story coming to light soon too, but I am not expecting newspapers to run stories on the case for multiple successive days unlike what we had last week.

Paul wrote:I do agree that the snarling rage towards these offenders, by the public and in the way you describe is wrong and ultimately damaging for us all and including those doing the snarling. It's always bound to happen though. Public executions once, as you noted, and as you will know, they were reputedly well-attended and popular events. I can believe that. I can't agree that we are somehow more vengeful today than in the days of public executions. We may turn out to be similar if there were public executions again but the fact is there aren't ...... because in many ways we aren't that vengeful. Actually I may be wrong there. On a referendum we would probably see a return to Capital Punishment.


You may well be right that it is bound to happen, referring to your 'natural' comments from earlier. There is a very good German thriller made in 1931 called 'M' about a hunt for a child murderer which gets very close to a lynching and seems eerily realistic despite the distance in time, but it's the fact that no mercy was conceded to the fact that the offenders were children in the case we're talking about - quite the opposite - that gets me. The fact that society was so ready to completely write them off and wash their hands of them so young suggests a depressing lack of hope.

Paul wrote:The way I saw the crime at the time was from a different perpective than you. Whilst you may have looked at the plight of the accused (being about your age), I looked at the impact of the crime and imagined with horror what that entailed. Probably subconciously I was affected by the crime, in so far as fear for your children was in the mind that bit more. This affects your thinking and how can it be presumed not to? It's good that you have presented the view from the persective of a nine-year old but you cannot ignore the feeling that parents may have. I think James Bulger's mother is more or less the same age as me. I could imagine very much how she would be feeling.


I don't doubt that if I had been a father of young children at the time I probably would have seen it from the perspective of the parent of the bereaved as opposed to the perspective of the offenders. Is this not the "If they had done this to my precious child I would want XXXX to happen to them?" line of reasoning though? What if your precious child had been the guilty one? I am aware that I have my own sense of 'involvement' based on feelings but I think that if we're allowing personal feelings to cloud our judgement we're on dangerous ground.

Paul wrote:The Sentence: Was a mandatory one for murder - Detained during her Majesty's Pleasure, which incidentally would have become a Life Sentence on the date of their 21st birthdays, each respectively. They haven't served their sentence as has been stated - they are still serving it and will continue to do so until death.


Again, I stand corrected on this point.

Paul wrote:The tariff given by the trial judge was a minimum of eight years. On appeal this was raised to ten years. The fact they were then released after eight years seems to me a mockery of the Appeal Court. If, in reverse, a criminal appeal successfully lowered a sentence, there would be outrage if that were ignored and the prisoner served longer.


You make a good point there about the original successful appeal being overridden, one I'd never thought about. Before the eight-year sentence was given to them the newspapers were predicting 15 years or so, but I think the judge wanted eight simply to bring them to age 18 firstly to avoid the rehabilitative work in care being undone in the harsh atmosphere of a prison where they would no doubt have been targeted, secondly to avoid them becoming too institutionalised ever to be able to adapt to the outside world and perhaps thirdly from the moral perspective of not wanting to unnecessarily punish the man for his actions as a boy.

Paul wrote:In my opinion they didn't serve long enough in custody. Eight years is not a long time for such an act. It is fair to say that this 8 years represents vitually all their teenage years and to lose them must be a terrible thing, but the same could be said for a person locked up at aged 20 until aged 28. That decade (the 20s) represents the first emergence into the adult world, the likelihood of a career beginning, a graduation, a serious relationship, even marriage and children. To lock someone up in those years would be to seriously lessen the chances of those things. The same could be said for the 30s or 40s - settling into career and promotion, seeing your children mature to adulthood, becoming finally more comfortably affluent, etc. The fact is that 8 years in prison is bad for anyone at any age and so, for certain crimes (only the worst), I don't think we should feel more reluctant to pass them based on the age of the convicted. If this is the case, then the murder of a child must rank far more serious.


If you are suggesting that eight years from age 10 to age 18 is no, or little different from eight years as an adult then I very much disagree. A ten-year-old has little comprehension of how long eight years is and an 18-year-old considers anything that happened eight years ago to be in the dim and distant past. Surely you must agree that somebody matures more between age 10 and age 18 than at any other eight-year period during adulthood, and hence it is a more crucial time in one's life and the experiences one has during that time can potentially have more of an effect on the character of the future adult than during any other period of similar length as an adult? I have heard it said that mentally you are the same age coming out of prison as you are going in - an exagerration I'm sure, but no doubt there is some truth to it. Even coming out at 18 left them with a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do.

Paul wrote:It's 20 years ago and you say we should not equate the mind and outlook of a 30 year old with that of a ten year old boy, presumably no matter what they have done as that ten year old. Really? How can you be so sure? In any case, they were released after 8 years. On the basis that is long enough in prison (and they weren't actually in a prison), do you think the outlook of an eighteen year old is far enough from that of a ten year old? I can tell you that the outlook of a 50 year old is somewhat different to that of a 30 year old, but that wouldn't excuse anything I had done aged thirty. Granted both those ages are definitively adult. I think if they had served 15 years, admittedly a long time, then justice would have been better served and they could have been monitored into adulthood. As it was, they were released on the threshold of adulthood, all new territory for them as for everyone and nobody really knew what might happen.


Looking at the point of view of a sentence designed with rehabilitation first and punishment second, I think 15 years would have ruined them. Even releasing them at 18 left them with a lot of catching up to do (in the report on Venables released by his probation team after his re-arrest it mentions how he was going through a "delayed adolescence" at 22 or 23 years old). If you had put them in an adult prison at 18 they would likely have been emotionally immature for their years and would likely have been targeted because of who they are (or from my perspective, 'were').

My point is that the adult in his late teens or early twenties just does not associate himself with the childhood acts he committed as if the adult him and the child him were the same person and so punishing him for it, as opposed to the containment which would have happened should either of the boys had been rejected at their parole hearings just serves no constructive purpose. Do I think that the 18 year old is far enough in outlook from the 10 year old, more so than the 28 year old is from the 20 year old? Yes, I do.

I can imagine the 25-year-old released after 15 years in captivity, seven of them as a marked man in a tough adult prison: brutalised, with little or any of the coping skills learnt from real-life experience and with a strong grudge against the world which has denied him a fair chance to make good of himself - a timebomb waiting to go off in effect, and less of a chance at successful rehabilitation than had they been released at 18. The tragedy would almost certainly have claimed three lives as opposed to one.

Paul wrote:Back to Venables. He was convicted of pornographic images on his computer, ones that involved two-year old children being raped. He posed online and in chatrooms as a 35 year old woman with an eight year old daughter, in the hope of furthering child pornography activity. All this just two or three years ago. It really is all too much.


I was disappointed to hear that the rumours which originally circulated about Venables were true (and we now know where the rumours came from: this story almost certainly relates to Venables). I'm not going to try and excuse what he did and say he didn't deserve the sentence he received, except that the terms of his release, such as having to tell any prospective partner who he was and not being allowed to get involved with any woman with a child of her own must put him in a near-hopeless situation in terms of ever being able to have a fulfilling relationship that most of us want, and need, and consider normal. The constant concealment necessary out of fear of the mob must also have taken a terrible psychological toll. I hope I'm not making light of his newer crime by saying that it would not have hit the headlines if he wasn't already a high-profile figure. As child pornography cases go, the volume we are talking about here is fairly small.

One intriguing comment Venables made to the police after his re-arrest was that he was "breaking the last taboo". I am wary of playing the armchair psychologist talking about somebody I've never met, but having been denied of the use of his own identity he lost a sense of self obtained through how others think of us. We all need a sense of identity, so in the absence of his real one and amidst the attempts he had made in creating a second one falling apart he only had the one given to him by the unforgiving tabloid media: the depraved monster, beyond all redemption. What is the biggest taboo in this country, something which only a "depraved monster" would do, one which so often causes rationality to go out of the window? Child pornography. I don't have any solutions to what seems like a damaged person damaged further by what he himself did and what was then done to him in return, but this is my theory at least.
Nathan
 
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