The Future of the Killers of Jamie Bulger

by Jonny Matthew – July 2008


A circular email regarding the killers of Jamie Bulger has recently been doing the rounds. It carries a strong emotional appeal against showing leniency to them. We should, however, pause before we shout ‘Yes!’ and circulate the message, as requested, to a list of our friends. The following dialogue illustrates the point.

The original circular email

‘Do you remember February 1993 in England , when a young boy of three was taken from a Liverpool shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys? Jamie Bulger walked away from his mother for only a second, and Jon Venables took his hand and led him out of the mall with his friend Robert Thompson.

They took Jamie on a walk for over two and a half miles, along the way stopping every now and again to torture the poor little boy who was crying constantly for his mummy. Finally they stopped at a railway track where they brutally kicked him, threw stones at him, rubbed paint in his eyes, pushed batteries up his anus and cut his fingers off with scissors. Other mutilations were inflicted but not reported in the press. N.B. Remember, a three-year-old cannot possibly defend themselves against a ten-year-old, let alone of two them.

What these two boys did was so horrendous that Jamie's mother was forbidden to identify his body. They then left his beaten small body on railway tracks so a train could run him over to hide the mess they had created. These two boys, even being boys, understood what they did was wrong, hence trying to make it look like an accident.

This week Lady Justice Butler-Sloss has awarded the two boys (now men), anonymity for the rest of their lives when they leave custody with new identities. They will also leave custody early only serving just over half of their sentence. They are being relocated to Australia to live out the rest of their lives. They disgustingly and violently took Jamie's life away and in return they each get a new life!

Please.... If you feel as strongly as we do, (and if you haven't already signed this petition) that this is a grave miscarriage of justice. Hit the forward button and add your name at the end, and send it to everyone you can!

If you are the 700th person to sign, please forward this e-mail to: and mark it for the attention of Lady Justice Butler-Sloss. Then continue on until it hits 1400, before you email her the list again. There is power in numbers and these petitions do help.

Maybe it'll prevent another child from a violent death and maybe it'll get greater, more appropriate convictions for these criminals....whatever their age. Please take a few seconds to forward it to your mail list and don't forget to add your name to the list.

Thank you.’


We cannot be clear whether the details of the package allegedly being offered to Venables and Thompson are correct, but there is no obvious reason to doubt them.

As a Christian social worker whose everyday work is with similar offenders, I received the above circular email from a friend of mine and replied as follows:

Questioning the rightness of signing the petition

I’m woefully aware of the degree of ignorance the public retains about the behaviour of damaged children. I deal constantly with challenging kids and have put together the following a few comments for you to consider.

The Bulger case, as everyone knows and acknowledges, was horrendous. James’s death was a tragedy. His parents will be forced to continue to live out the nightmare of having outlived their little boy, knowing that his life was curtailed in such a despicable way. Everyone who read the email naturally sympathises with them strongly.

So far this morning, I have sat with three families of boys who have visited abusive behaviour of various kinds on other people. We have been discussing their problems, their behaviour, the parenting they have received and the possible solutions to what is, clearly, unacceptable behaviour.  

However, we have also been discussing the factors that influenced these children—and children they are—to behave as they have done. They have themselves suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse; neglect; absent fathers and sometimes no parental involvement at all; poverty; lack of education; psychological problems and, in some cases, psychiatric disorders; learning disabilities; exposure to pornography from an early age, sometimes including having been made to watch adults have sex or being made to join in against their will; watching their fathers (or stepfathers, or whoever) abuse their mothers serially; etc.

I share this, not to say that the behaviour of the boys is justified—clearly it isn’t—but to point out that, at the very least, it is understandable. By that I mean that, given their backgrounds, we can see why they may have ended up displaying such damaging and socially unacceptable conduct. The same can be said for the boys who murdered James Bulger. The abusive and dysfunctional families from which the boys came tell a tale of childhood lost amidst a furore of violent, addicted, absent and abusive adults, whose behaviour these boys later copied.  

While I know that the people who signed this ill-informed, ill-thought through and inaccurate petition are well intentioned and want to prevent the atrocity of James Bulger’s death from being repeated, signing it will achieve nothing—at best. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that doing so will only serve to perpetuate the social divisions and the stereotypical assumptions about needy families and their children. The police officer who signed the petition is himself ill-informed.  There is robust statistical evidence to illustrate that there is no more risk of child abduction and murder today than there was 40 years ago. Conversely, the fear of crime amongst members of the public—particularly ‘middle class’ people—is higher than it has ever been. It is precisely this fear that drives the public to react as they do. I wonder how their own behaviour might look, were they to have grown up in similar circumstances?

Of course, there are thousands of people in the country who have endured difficult childhoods and who do not go on to abuse and murder others. However, of those who do behave in this way, the vast majority (and I would argue nearly all) have suffered terribly. Children who grow up in such environments develop distorted views of the world and find themselves at odds with the very society that condemns them, when their own greatest need is to be treated as the rest of us were or are.

Even a cursory look at the backgrounds of Venables and Thompson, the boys who killed James Bulger, shows a catalogue of disastrous parenting and developmental experiences. Perhaps we would be better to ask ourselves what we need to do, as a society, to protect children from such experiences, rather than how we might punish them further for having suffered for most of their short lives?  

James Bulger’s death makes me very angry, too, and it makes me want to do something about it. I spend my working life seeking solutions to help damaged and difficult children to break free of their histories and find a way forward in life that includes their own and everyone else’s safety. In most cases we succeed. We could succeed more quickly, for more kids, for longer and with overall better outcomes, if the country were prepared to put its money where its mouth is and pay for the proper rehabilitation of children whose lives are horrendous.

I don’t mean for a second to rant at you personally; you are a good man whom I respect and value as a friend. I’m also aware that sometimes people inherit or repeat ideas and attitudes which, were they informed more fully, they might re-consider?

Bet you didn’t expect quite such a reply! Sorry if it feels like an unnecessary finger-wagging exercise on my part—it’s not. It’s just the enthusiastic response of someone who wants the damaged kids around us to have a better deal. We’ll all be safer if they get it.

The email-circulator’s response

Interesting reading. I completely appreciate where you're coming from. We the general public are, as you said, ‘ill informed’ and can only react to what is portrayed in the media and what we hear. This whole Bulger case is tragic, and more so because of what we have been told about the disgraceful, tragic and inhumane suffering that this poor little boy endured before the end of his short life. I appreciate there are reasons behind what made the two boys carry out such a horrific torturous crime on such a helpless soul and very much agree with you that education, perhaps, as opposed to chastising, would potentially make these types of horrific crimes dissipate.

I'm honestly not passing judgment on either of the two boys who committed this atrocity and, further, have no clue as to the issues you face as a professional whilst dealing with children who have had their childhoods robbed from them by abusive, inconsiderate parents/guardians. I do, however, find it difficult to accept that these two boys have been given a completely clean slate and are allowed to get on with their lives under completely new anonymous identities—possibly, and worryingly, to potentially commit similar crimes again. That said, as Christians we have been forgiven for much worse!

I didn't mean to offend you. Please accept my apologies if I did—I assure you it was un-intentional. The email forwarded was literally a chain letter which found its way into my inbox with the request to forward it to as many as possible. I don't understand how the politics surrounding such issues work. All I simply can relate to is that I, like you, have a child close to Jamie Bulger’s age and could not imagine anything worse happening to my child than the suffering that Jamie endured.

The social worker’s last word

Thanks for this. Glad to have your feedback. I wasn’t remotely offended, just exercised by the content of an email so factually inaccurate and emotionally charged at the expense of reason. I have many off-duty moments when the urge for vengeance of some kind is strong. Like you, this would be unbearably acute were it to involve my own little lovelies.

To my knowledge, the killers of James Bulger were not sentenced to a determinate sentence as the email suggested. For a crime such as theirs the most likely sentence would be to be ‘detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. This is effectively a life sentence, where the release date etc. is decided subsequently based on a number of strict criteria, public safety being at the centre. It’s some years now since I met the manager of the unit where they were being held and it’s 15 years since the murder. I may be mistaken, but I was under the impression that they were released some time ago with the anonymity you mention. That said, we can be sure that they were not merely given a new identity and released to get on with their lives; at the very least they will likely have been subject to a lifelong license, requiring them to notify the relevant authorities of their whereabouts, to report for regular sessions with Probation Officers and periodically be re-assessed in terms of their mental health and the risks they may or may not present. If they ever have children they will be the focus of rigorous scrutiny automatically and, in all likelihood, not be permitted unfettered care of any children they may have. This is as it should be.

Perhaps the best insight into the situation that gave rise to the hostile and vicious behaviour of Venables and Thompson towards James Bulger is to ask ourselves how appallingly we would need to treat our own children in order to so damage them that they would behave in the same way. I can tell you with absolute certainty that it has to be the most horrific and aberrant environment to so distort a young mind. This doesn’t excuse the distortion or the behaviour it may produce, but it does help us to see that, despite our aversion and deep sense of ‘How could they do it?’, in the end, there but for the grace of God go I.

Thanks for your time in replying. I would have quite understood had you decided not to bother. I perhaps feel more strongly than most. In itself this is not a virtue, just an ever-surging conviction born out of the frustrations of trying to bring some respite to the damaged kids that come through our doors each day. I wish the sense of outrage and injustice we often feel for the seemingly lenient treatment of child and adolescent perpetrators could be applied to the factors that damage them in the first place…

Here’s hoping!


People like Venables and Thompson are, at the same time, victims and criminals.

The problem is that we tend to react to such people as either criminals or victims, whereas they are both.

Somehow we need to balance the two, and this is not easy. None of us would relish being in Lady Butler-Sloss’s position. Rather than run with the knee-jerk emotional response provoked by the initial email, let us pause, pray and consider.

There, but for the grace of God, go I…


Footnote: In fact the two boys were released on a life license in June 2001—seven years before this email—with an injunction banning public disclosure of any details of their whereabouts, etc.