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The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg
"More uncertainty"
 real 28k

Home Secretary Jack Straw
Decision is taken out of the hands of politicians
 real 28k

Monday, 13 March, 2000, 22:18 GMT
Bulger killers wait on release date

Jon Venables (left) and Robert Thompson are now 17
The two boys who murdered Liverpool toddler James Bulger must wait longer to find out when they will be freed.

A decision on the length of their term has been referred by the home secretary to the Lord Chief Justice.

Jack Straw announced the move in a House of Commons statement on Monday.

What they did wasn't a prank that went wrong

Denise Fergus' solicitor
"I appreciate that this continuing uncertainty will be distressing. I hope that the process can be concluded as quickly as possible," he said.

His decision comes after the European Court ruled last December that Mr Straw's predecessor - Michael Howard - was wrong to set a minimum sentence of 15 years for Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

Mr Straw said he would be bringing forward legislation that would mean trial judges, rather than ministers, would set minimum tariffs for juveniles.

Existing cases would be referred to Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill for consideration.

'Accomplished deceivers'

James Bulger's mother, Denise Fergus, still wants the sentence imposed by Mr Howard.

James Bulger
James Bulger would have been 10 this week
Solicitor Sean Sexton, who represents Ms Fergus, said she would be "desperately upset" by the move.

"What she wants to get over is that what they did wasn't a prank that went wrong," he said.

"They are accomplished deceivers and she genuinely believes that they could kill again if released.

"She wants to spare any other families and prevent them going through what her family has gone through."

However Mr Straw stressed that even when Venables and Thompson become eligible for release, they would be freed only if the parole board was "satisfied that there is no unacceptable risk to the public".

Ruled unlawful

The European Court ruled that a politician should not be involved in setting sentences for juveniles.

It also ruled that the two boys had had an unfair trial because they were tried in an adult court.

Mr Straw has asked Lord Justice Auld to look at the way juvenile trials in Crown Courts are handled as part of his review of criminal courts.

The home secretary offered his "profound sympathy" to James Bulger's family and apologised for the distress caused by "a never ending cycle of court judgments" about the case.

'Unwarranted interference'

The home secretary said that because the tariff set by Mr Howard had been ruled unlawful by law lords in 1997, there was now no existing tariff for the two youths.

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said she accepted that Mr Straw had no alternative but to observe the European Court's ruling.

But she said she saw it as a "most unwarranted interference" and believed that 15 years was an "appropriate" tariff.

Public outcry

Venables and Thompson, both now 17, were convicted of James Bulger's murder in 1993.

They kidnapped the toddler from a Merseyside shopping centre and murdered him on a nearby railway line.

The minimum eight-year tariff recommended by the trial judge was raised to 10 years after a public outcry, and later increased by Mr Howard.

Venables and Thompson are currently in secure units under the care of social services.

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16 Dec 99 | UK
Q&A: The Bulger case
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