Jon Venables was returned to prison last week after breaching the terms of his licence conditions.
Venables and Robert Thompson, both 10 at the time, abducted and murdered James, two, in February 1993.
James was taken from a shopping centre in Liverpool and found on a railway line having been beaten with bricks and an iron bar. Venables and Thompson, who were truanting from school, walked James around the streets of Liverpool for more than two miles, stopping occasionally to kick and punch him. They told adults who intervened that he was their brother.
Venables who was released under a new identity at the age of 18 and given a new identity when released after the sheer savagery of their crime that had the nation divided as to whether or not both Jon Venables and his co-defendant Robert Thompson should be tried as children or adults. The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10, the doli incapax rule conclusively presumes that a child less than ten years old cannot be held legally responsible for their actions, and so cannot be convicted for committing a criminal offence. They were tried in an adult court rather than a children’s court, was this right? Did they have the capability at 10 to realise what they were doing?
They were convicted following a trial at Preston crown court and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the usual sentence for life imprisonment when the offender is a juvenile
Thompson and Venables grew up in circumstances which had both striking similarities and profound differences. Both boys had parents who had separated; each had difficulties with attendance, learning and behaviour at school. They bunked off, they shoplifted, they were violent; all these pieces in a pattern that made up a pair of empty, broken young lives.
A narrative emerged of two childhoods influenced not merely by the flaws of parents or the absence of a father, but by the environment in which these boys lived, a world of social and economic deprivation, of trashy television and cultural poverty, inadequate social services, failed schooling and general confusion. It was a place that left a moral vacuum for two children who would go on to kill and leave the unanswered question: why did they do it?
After the trial, Mr Justice Morland laid the moral responsibility squarely with the parents. He said a public debate about the parenting and family background of Thompson and Venables was required. “In my judgement,” he averred, “the home background, upbringing, family circumstances, parental behaviour and relationships were needed in the public domain so that informed and worthwhile debate can take place for the public good in the case of grave crimes by young children.”
Thompson was a member of what can only be described as a terribly dysfunctional family. The fifth of seven children, he proved as difficult to his mother as the rest of her progeny. Ann Thompson had been deserted by her husband five years before the killing of Jamie Bulger, and in the week after he left the family home burned down in an accidental fire. Left on her own, Thompson sought consolation in drink and was often to be found in the bar in Higson’s Top House rather than looking after the children in her chaotic home.
While it was their sons up there in the specially-raised dock, the parents of Thompson and Venables could have been left in no doubt that they too were on trial – that the blame for this terrible murder was placed at the door of their shambolic households.
But can such guilt be so neatly apportioned? There are many families where the parents are struggling to cope, where the children have behavioural problems. Parents are invariably ordinary people with problems of their own. They should instill values and principles in a child but they cannot be there all the time – as Denise Bulger (now Fergus) learned at a terrible cost.
The Venables and Thompson families were at very different places on the spectrum of “dysfunctional” families: if the chain of causality between parental failings and juvenile homicide were so straightforwardly simple how many families should be regarded as pathological – potential producers of more child childkillers?
The parents themselves are not murderers, but whatever blame attaches to them has been abundantly punished. Thompson and Venables moved away from Liverpool after their sons’ convictions eight years ago. They took on new identities, tried to create new lives. Yet these are haunted by the fear of being found and blamed all over again. For they themselves will always feel guilty.
Last night, James’s mother Denise Fergus, 42, said through a spokesman she believed the public should be told what Venables had done to trigger his recall to prison.
“Denise has always said she did not believe that it was safe to parole Venables and Thompson at 18, before they had ever spent a day in an adult prison,” the spokesman said.
“She believes this breach of parole shows that she was right … But she believes that she and the public have a right to know what Venables has done and what is to be done with him now he is an adult offender.”
The Ministry of Justice refused to say what Venables had done to breach his licence. It also refused to confirm or deny whether it involved an act of violence against a person or any other criminal act.
The conditions placed on the killers after their release included that they did not contact each other, and that they stayed away from the Liverpool area.
Michael Wolkind QC said he thought there was a “significant chance” the breach had been serious.
He said: “Licence is a means of controlling people once they are released. Now this has been publicised, I think there must be a possibility of his new identity being exposed in prison and the inference must be it was a serious breach.
“To go to all the trouble of building him a new identity and a new life, there must be a significant chance it was serious.”
So, was Denise Fergus right, were these two boys anable to be rehabilitated?