In my previous piece, I gave an explanation as to what happened to James and gave a brief overview of other children who had committed similar crimes. I also explored the backgrounds of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. I will now look at what happened when the boys were arrested, tried and incarcerated, as well as what their lives looked like post-detention and attempt to understand what motivated them. Trying to understand the ‘why’ of this case is a Herculean task. I am no psychologist or criminologist, although I have some training in those fields and a keen interest in both.
It is clear that both boys suffered abuse to at least some degree, and much has been made of the ‘cycle of abuse;’ the idea that abused children go onto become abusers themselves. It’s a neat theory that holds popular appeal for its simplicity, but there is in fact no empirical evidence to back it up. On the contrary, most children are resilient and overcome exposure to war, abuse, alcoholic parents, illness and the suchlike. Social workers and psychotherapists are often subject to confirmation bias when it comes to the cycle of abuse; they believe in the theory therefore they seek out evidence to confirm their views and disregard evidence that contradicts them. Research that seeks to confirm the theory is often flawed.
Studies are often cross-sectional, meaning that different groups of people are studied at once, rather than prospective, in which the same group of children is followed into adulthood. The definitions of ‘abuse’ are frequently inconsistent and are not backed up with documentation such as court records. They depend on adult recollections, which can be flawed, and they lack control groups. In 1989, Cathy Spatz Wisdom designed and undertook a meticulous study into the cycle of abuse. She used multiple sources of information to evaluate children’s histories of abuse including Child Protective Services records and self-reporting from parents and children. Spatz Wisdom used multiple measures to assess maltreatment, followed the same group of children over three decades and collected information at various different time points over that period. She found little evidence to support the idea of a cycle of abuse and none to suggest that the sexually abused go on to become sexual abusers themselves. Most importantly, her findings have been replicated in numerous other studies. Therefore, regarding the cycle of abuse, it would be more accurate to say that the majority of those who are abused do not go on to become abusers, but that the majority of abusers have themselves being abused.
And what of violent media? In the aftermath of James’ murder, much was made of the impact of ‘video nasties,’ especially the slasher flick Childs Play 3 which had been rented by Neil Venables on 18th January 1993. In the movie, a demonic doll ‘Chucky’ comes to life and presides over bloody chaos. Seven people are killed, and ominously some of the violence involves blue paint and a railway track, the inference being obvious. Whilst it cannot be confirmed that the boys actually watched the film, under the circumstances it seems reasonable to assume that they did. Much research has been conducted into the possible link between increased aggression and the consumption of violent media. Simply put, the takeaway seems to be that the majority of well-adjusted individuals who consume such media are not made more aggressive as a consequence, but those who are in some way disturbed and vulnerable may well be more susceptible. Such people may struggle to differentiate between fantasy and reality. It is hardly a stretch to state that two disturbed and out-of-touch 10 year old boys could well be negatively influenced by something as violent and unpleasant as Child’s Play 3.
After being arrested, both boys eventually confessed although both blamed the other. There was considerable forensic evidence linking them to James’ murder, including blood on their shoes and a bruise on James’ face that matched Bobby’s shoe. The boys were remanded into custody on 22nd February 1993 and on May 14th they both pled not guilty at Liverpool Crown Court. The media had a field day. The Venables and Thompson families were forced to flee and reporters swarmed the boys’ former school. The Sun, which can always be relied upon to stir the pot, published a photo of Jon eating a lollipop and complained about the boys ‘lush lives’ in custody. The trial began on 1st November 1993 at Preston Crown Court. There was a special raised platform built in the dock so the boys could observe the proceedings and chairs in the public gallery were bolted to the floor to prevent spectators from throwing them. The presiding judge was Sir Michael Morland and whilst the boys were supposed to be anonymous, everyone could see them.
They were convicted on Wednesday 24th November and sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Morland allowed the boys’ names to be published. The media, predictably, were thrilled. They took great delight in labelling the two ten year old boys as ‘evil, demonic, monsters and fiends.’ Headlines include ‘How Do You Feel Now, You Little Bastards?’ (Daily Star) and ‘The Devil Himself Couldn’t Have Made A Better Job Of Fiends’ (Daily Mirror). Politicians, keen to capitalize on the tragedy, jumped into the fray with remarks such as ‘nasty little juveniles,’ ‘hooligans,’ ‘worthless’ and ‘evil.’ The then Prime Minister, John Major, trotted out his infamous line ‘society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less,’ as if that wasn’t already the case. The writer Blake Morrison summed up the atmosphere of the time beautifully, saying that the debacle ‘shamed Britain in the eyes of the world, not because the murder itself was so shocking (though it was) but because of the media circus, the court process, the inability of the boys to instruct their lawyers and the publics opposition to the possibility of them being rehabilitated.’
It was originally recommended that the boys serve eight years in custody, although Lord Taylor of Gosforth the Lord Chief Justice raised it to ten. The Sun, which apparently hadn’t stirred up enough hysteria already, collected 280,000 signatures on a petition demanding the boys be kept locked up for life and printed coupons stating ‘life should mean life.’ The then Home Secretary Michael Howard raised the minimum tariff to fifteen years in 1994 but this was overturned by the House Of Lords in 1997. In 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the boys had not received a fair trial and awarded Bobby and Jon £15,000 and £29,000 respectively.
During their time in custody, the boys were taught to conceal their identities and the nature of their crimes. Both were visited regularly by their families, and efforts were made to educate and rehabilitate them. By all accounts they made good progress, despite suffering from PTSD. They were released on lifelong license in 2001 with new identities.
Whilst Bobby has stayed out of trouble since, Jon has struggled. It was alleged that he had sex with a staff member at the unit where he was held, and shortly after his release he began a relationship with the mother of a five year old child. In 2005 his probation officer reported that Jon had a number of young girlfriends and he was abusing drugs and alcohol. He was arrested on suspicion of affray in 2008, although the charges were subsequently dropped and three months later he was given a curfew after being caught in possession of cocaine. He revealed his true identity on at least two separate occasions. On 2nd March 2010 he pleaded guilty to possessing Child Abuse Material and received another two years in prison, and a further three for the same offense in 2017.
There can be no denying that our treatment of young offenders is wildly out of step with much of the civilized world. For example, the law forbids any therapeutic involvement of mental health professionals pre-trial in case it ‘adulterates’ the evidence. All the psychologists can do is attempt to establish if the young person knew the difference between right and wrong at the time of the offense and if they are ‘of sound mind.’ We are the only country in Western Europe where children can be held criminally responsible at the age of ten, and that tries such children as adults. Elsewhere children are brought before juvenile courts and tried in camera, and they receive years of psychological and social intervention. Depending on the severity of the crime and their social situation, young offenders either remain at home under close supervision or are placed in children’s homes or purpose-built centers far more therapeutic in nature than our secure units. In 2013 England and Wales spent over 11x more money on locking up children than they did on preventing youth crime. It costs £215,000 per annum to lock up a child in one of ten special units and 75% of those children will go onto reoffend.
This case is a terrible tragedy for all involved, and Ralph and Denise Bulger (now Fergus) deserve our every sympathy. They have suffered unimaginable loss in the worst possible circumstances. I mean no harm by focusing primarily on Jon and Bobby in this piece; I just feel very strongly that we must reevaluate how we deal with young offenders. You cannot cure brutality and inhumanity with more of the same, and I agree with Blake Morrison that the conduct of the press, public and politicians throughout this case was shameful. Killers though they maybe, Jon and Bobby were still ten year old boys. What was achieved by branding them ‘evil scum’ and mobbing the outside of the court, physically attacking the vans transporting the boys? It did nothing to protect society. If we were not so convinced of Britain’s exceptionality, we could learn a great deal from our European neighbours on the right way to reduce and handle youth offending. As much as I hoped to understand why this happened when I began writing this, I am just as baffled as I was at the beginning. It’ a cliché, but there are numerous reasons why and it is all but impossible to say which is the most significant. Ultimately I believe we will never really know. One of the most terrifying truths of this world is that sometimes dreadful things happen without any real explanation. All we can do as a society is to do our best to learn from them.