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1997: Straw to reconsider Bulger killers' fate

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard acted illegally when he raised the minimum sentence imposed on the Bulger killers, law lords have ruled.

The judge at the 1993 trial set a minimum tariff of eight years for the two 10-year-olds who killed toddler James Bulger.

This was then raised to 10 years by the Court of Appeal, but Mr Howard later ruled Robert Thompson and Jon Venables should spend at least 15 years in jail.

The future of the two boys now rests with the current Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

The law lords decided by a 4-1 majority Mr Howard had acted unfairly and unlawfully when he took into account public opinion while reconsidering the sentences of Thompson and Venables.

In 1994, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions run by James' parents and the Sun newspaper, which demanded the boys spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

The judges also said home secretaries may not treat children detained at Her Majesty's pleasure the same way as adults lifers.

The final decision on the pair's release will rest with the Parole Board, but Mr Straw will determine the earliest date their cases can be referred. It is expected this will be in 2001 or 2003.

"I will now consider [the judgement] very carefully before reaching conclusions on this case and on the more general issues covered," the home secretary said.

But the Bulger family condemned the verdict and the murdered two-year-old's mother, Denise Bulger, said it flew in the face of public opinion.

"Just under half a million people thought the recommended sentence by the trial judge was far too low," she said.

In Context
Venables and Thompson were released in June 2001 after a Parole Board ruling, eight years after they were imprisoned.

A ruling by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in January 2001 said their identities should remain secret as there was a "real possibility of serious physical harm and possibly death" to them.

The Manchester Evening News was found guilty of contempt of court over an article about the young men's whereabouts published just hours after the parole board ruled they could be released.

The court order prohibiting publication of any information likely to lead to their identification will probably remain in place indefinitely.


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