|Thursday 09 November, 2000
When Children Kill Children
A high profile murder case made international headlines seven years ago. Police were shocked when it emerged that a two-year-old toddler called Jamie Bulger had been abducted and then killed by two ten-year-old boys from Merseyside, in Northern England. When it was recently announced that these two, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, could soon be released, there was widespread outrage.
Meanwhile, just across the North Sea, a similar murder case has proceeded very differently in the Norwegian city of Trondheim. In October 1994, five-year-old Silje Raedergard was attacked by two six-year-old boys, who left her dying in the snow. The names of Raedergard’s young assailants were never revealed in the Norwegian press, and neither boy was prosecuted.
Outlook examines how two cases, which seem so similar, could be treated so differently.
The case in Norway
On 15th October 1994 Silje Raedergard was playing with friends on a local football field. She had played with the two boys many times, but this time the game turned rough. Whilst playing snow castles, the two boys became aggressive. They stripped Raedergard, stoned her and when she fell unconscious they panicked and ran, leaving her to die in the snow.
The news of Raedergard’s death shocked the small town. With a population of 135,000, the city of Trondheim had only experienced two murders in the six years prior to her death. However instead of expressing anger and revenge, the local community felt grief and a level of responsibility.
The case in Britain
The Merseyside tragedy began on the afternoon of February 12 1993 at 3.39pm when a surveillance camera in the Bootle Strand shopping centre, filmed Robert Thompson and Jon Venables take James Bulger by the hand from outside a butcher's shop. Bulger's mother was inside buying meat and had let go of him for just two minutes. In that short time the two boys had led him away, taking him out of the shopping centre and to a nearby railway line. Later the next day Bulgers’ body was found there, he had been beaten, struck with a battery and bricks and left for dead.
After the publics' initial grief came anger, which culminated in a crowd of more than 500 people gathering outside the magistrates court, hurling abuse at the two boys when they came to trial.
The treatment in Norway
In Norway the boys were treated as victims, not killers. The legal age for prosecution stands at 15 and so the children were free to return to kindergarten within a week of the incident occurring.
The local community felt dismayed that such a thing could happen in their city and felt little anger when the two boys were given counselling for the following four years. Trond Andreassen was the head psychologist at the child prosecution agency in Trondheim, he recalls the meetings that he held with the parents of the local kindergarten:
‘We explained that these boys would start there and what we would do to keep everybody safe. The parents of the other children accepted this situation and a lot of parents thought that these children needed to be in the kindergarten and needed to be taken care of.’
|'In Norway the boys were treated as victims, not killers... they were free to return to kindergarten within a week of the incident occurring' |
Prosecution in Britain
In stark contrast to Norway, in Britain the legal age for prosecution is ten-years-old. A few days after the body of little Jamie Bulger had been found, Venables and Thompson were taken into custody. They were convicted in November 1993, and ordered to serve a minimum sentence of 15 years. The boys were separated and have been held in secure units for the past seven and a half years.
Earlier this year the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the boys’ tariff was over with immediate effect. The pair now awaits parole board decisions before they, and their immediate families, can assume false identities and attempt to make a new life for themselves.
On hearing the verdict Bulger’s mother issued a statement that said she was ‘disgusted and shocked’. The British newspapers echoed her feelings of disbelief with headlines which simply said, ‘Sick!’ and asked, ‘Has justice betrayed the little boy who was never allowed to grow up?’
In delivering his verdict of eligibility for release, Lord Woolf, expressed his concerns that Venables and Thompson could risk further damaged if continually institutionalised. He called for a need for rehabilitation, but, realistically, has the case gone too far?
In his experience, Andreassen believes that rehabilitation would now be very difficult. He explains:
‘What happened to them was to make sure the trauma was as great as possible. They’ve been exorcised from the normal environment. In Norway we were concerned to put the boys into as normal situation as possible.’
Whilst one of the boys involved in the murder of Raedergard seems to have adjusted, the other has psychological problems and continues to receive psychiatric help. In time it is hoped that they will live normal lives.
For Venables and Thompson parole is imminent. Laurence Lee was the lawyer for Venables, in his view it will be extremely difficult for the boys to ever readjust and live a normal life. He comments:
‘They have been in custody since they were ten, they will probably be released at 18 or 19. It’s going to be very difficult for them because, rightly or wrongly, they are going to be released having been deprived of all normal things that children in their formative years experience – dating, going to football matches and pop concerts. I describe them as battery hens and I think that when they come out and have to face normal things in life, I don’t think that they are going to find it easy to cope… As I’ve said before, their sentence starts on the day that they are released.’
| New identity
|The precedent for protecting the identity of child killers in Britain stems from the case of Mary Bell. She was jailed in 1968, at the age of 11, for the manslaughter of two boys, aged four and three.
Bell, originally from Newcastle, built a new life under a new identity on being freed from jail in 1980, but reporters tracked her down eight years later.
In 1998 there was renewed media interest after Bell was paid for her help in a book on her life by the author Gitta Sereny.
Bell's teenage daughter had been unaware of her mother's past until reporters besieged the family home.