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The BBC's Jane Peel
"It's now up to the parole board to decide if they can be safely released"
 real 56k

Jon Venables' solicitor, John Dickinson
"I think the Lord Chief Justice has made the correct decision"
 real 56k

Shadow home secretary, Ann Widdecombe
"I am not sure the eight year tarriff is a true reflection of the crime"
 real 28k

Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Bulger killers eligible for release

James was abducted from a shopping precinct
The killers of toddler James Bulger could be free within months after the Lord Chief Justice ruled the process of parole could begin immediately.

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who have been held in separate secure units for over seven and a half years, will be released as soon as the parole board decides they are ready.

The decision was delivered by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, at the High Court on Thursday morning, who said the boys' tariff was over with immediate effect.


The whole case has turned into a ridiculous legal charade

James' mother, Denise Fergus

"I set a tariff that will expire today. This will enable the very difficult task of deciding if and how these young men should return to society to begin," Lord Woolf said.

There had been speculation that the tariff, set at eight years at the original trial in November 1993, would remain at eight or be increased to 10 or 15 years.

James' mother, who sank her head and sobbed when the announcement came, later issued a statement which said she was "disgusted and shocked" by the judge's decision.

The statement read: "The whole case has turned into a ridiculous legal charade and I am sick of the mess the British legal system has made of it."

James Bulger's mother Denise
James' mother Denise sobbed in court
James' father Ralph said he would try to challenge the ruling.

In a statement Mr Bulger said he would press Home Secretary Jack Straw to set up an appeal process to allow a challenge to the decision.

He would also make representations to the Parole Board about the actual release of the two boys.

Mr Bulger accused Lord Woolf of ignoring representations he had made about the sentence the boys should serve.

He said neither of James's killers had ever expressed any remorse to his family over the crime.

Thompson and Venables - now both 18 - were aged 10 when they murdered two-year-old James, after abducting him from a shopping centre on Merseyside in February 1993.

'Woeful'

The two teenagers, who were convicted in November 1993, had been ordered to serve a 15-year minimum sentence by then Home Secretary Michael Howard in 1994.

Mr Howard said on Thursday he regretted the Lord Chief Justice's decision, adding: "I do not believe that it reflects what the trial judge had described as the unparalleled evil nature of the offence."

Jack Straw has stressed that neither will be freed until the parole board decides they no longer pose a danger to the public.

But the judge's decision was questioned by shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe.

CCTV footage before the abduction
The boys were caught on CCTV before the abduction
She said: "I understand the view that they should be kept out of adult prison but that shouldn't determine the length of the tariff."

She added that an adult would have served at least 20 years for the crime and so a 15-year sentence would have already been a considerable reduction.

Lord Woolf's decision comes after more than six months' consultation with the relatives of James and the youths' lawyers.

Retired detective superintendent Albert Kirby, the officer who headed the murder investigation, described the decision as "woeful".

He said he believed 15 years to be "the most realistic" term given the magnitude of the crime.

European ruling

Lawyer Laurence Lee, who represented Venables at the original trial, told BBC News 24 he was "slightly surprised" by the judge's decision..

But he said the boys would now have to satisfy the expert opinions of doctors, psychologists and the parole board, and prove that they genuinely felt remorse.

The decision fell to Lord Woolf after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in December 1999 that judges, rather than the home secretary, should determine jail terms for juvenile killers.
Case history
Feb 1993 - James Bulger murdered
Nov 1993 - Thompson and Venables get eight year minimum sentence, later raised to 10
July 1994 - Home Secretary Michael Howard raises term to 15 years
Dec 1999 - European Court of Human Rights rules judges should decide tariff
Oct 2000 - Lord Chief Justice ends tariff

The judges also agreed with the pair's solicitors that their trial was not fair because it was held in public, and subject to intensive press coverage.

Thompson and Venables were convicted at Preston Crown Court and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, recommended that they serve a minimum of eight years. The then Lord Chief Justice, the late Lord Taylor of Gosforth, increased that to 10.

The tariff was raised again in July 1994 by Michael Howard to 15 years, but that was quashed by the House of Lords after judicial review proceedings in 1997.

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16 Dec 99 | UK
Q&A: The Bulger case
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