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Sunday, 17 June, 2001, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Bulger killers' mugshots inquiry
John Venables (left) and Robert Thompson
Venables (left) and Thompson could be freed within months
Police have launched an internal investigation after mugshots of James Bulger's killers, taken on the day they were charged, appeared on a television programme.

The photographs of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, taken in February 1993, were broadcast last week on a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, entitled "Unforgiven", and then published in several newspapers.

James Bulger
James Bulger was lured to his death
Grahame Barker, assistant chief constable of Merseyside police, said: "The photographs were not officially released by Merseyside police and an internal inquiry has been launched to find out how they were released."

The investigation comes amid speculation that the two killers, who both turn 19 in August, are on the brink of being released with new identities.

Until the programme the only published images of Venables and Thompson had been grainy CCTV pictures of them abducting James, home videos from school functions and school photographs.

Thompson and Venables were detained indefinitely for the Liverpool toddler's murder after a trial at Preston Crown Court in November 1993.

The 10-year-old truants abducted the little boy from the Strand shopping centre in Bootle and lured him to a railway line, before leaving his battered body on the track.

Parole hearings due

They have spent their entire detention period in local authority-run secure accommodation but it is understood they are due to appear before parole boards this week, which could result in them being freed within months.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf effectively ended the boys' tariff - the minimum period they must spend in custody - when he ruled, last October that it would not be beneficial for them to spend time in the "corrosive atmosphere" of an adult prison.

They are also protected by an open-ended High Court injunction banning the publication of anything which may lead to their identification after their release.

But despite this there have been reports that a recent photograph of Robert Thompson, taken by a town centre CCTV camera when he was on a supervised outing last summer, is to be published on the internet by people opposed to the boys' release.

If they are released it is likely they will be released into a halfway house rather then given full freedom immediately.

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