Teens' parole tests British sense of justice

The release of boys who murdered a toddler sets off fierce debate on safety, sentencing, and the media.

They have new names and new identities, but Jon Venables and Robert Thompson - paroled after serving eight years for one of the most notorious crimes in modern British history - are hunted men.

Newspapers, both domestic and foreign, have pledged to keep watch on the 18-year-olds. Vigilantes have posted death threats against them on websites.

The British government, meanwhile, is desperately seeking to maintain their security while calming public fury.

According to a Home Office (interior ministry) spokesman, "The reason anonymity was granted to the boys was because of the potential for a revenge-type scenario. There may be certain sectors of society that may want to take the law into their own hands, and it is not for us to judge. The judiciary has made its decision."

At issue is many people's confidence in justice - particularly toward young offenders who commit heinous crimes - and in the judgement of those who administer the penal system. Youth justice and the privacy rights of criminals who have served their time are issues that democratic institutions are struggling with from the US to Japan.

The case also highlights the limitations of British courts to control the media, especially in the age of the Internet.

According to Richard Garside of Nacro, a British crime-reduction charity, part of the current problem stems from the trial judge's decision to release the boys' names. "The judge was, in all faith, doing it because he felt it was necessary to have a full debate about juvenile offending. But our view was that that was a questionable rationale.

"One of the problems has been between the public right to know, but not the absolute right for people to know everything," Mr. Garside says.

Venables and Thompson were convicted of the 1993 abduction, torture, and murder of a toddler, James Bulger. The age of the offenders - just 10 at the time - shocked Britain.

After trial in an adult court, the two were sentenced to eight years in a youth institution, subsequently increased to 15 years by the Home Secretary. The case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1999 that government officials did not have the right to interfere in sentencing.

On June 22, a parole board announced that both young men had fulfilled the criteria for leaving custody. They will live in supervised accommodation at separate, undisclosed locations.

Bulger's mother, Denise Fergus, was outraged at the release, which fueled massive media outcry that the pair were being let out too soon. Mrs. Fergus told Britain's Daily Mail: "I am consumed with hatred and anger and fear.... I believe they are both still dangerous."

A spokeswoman for Justice for James, a group linked to Fergus that campaigned for the boys to remain in prison, told another publication: "No matter where they go, someone out there is waiting." The News of the World, Britain's largest-selling newspaper, quoted Venables's mother as saying she believed her son would be dead in a month.

"If they get lynched, then we have to blame the newspapers," says media commentator Roy Greenslade. "In my view, the climate of vengeance has been propagated by newspapers."

That climate has already had an impact. The BBC reported on Sunday that Thompson's family had gone into hiding after his mother was attacked last week.

Mr. Greenslade says vigilantes could not thrive "without the oxygen of publicity," and describes the coverage as a self-fulfilling prophesy, denying the boys the chance of reformation and reintegration into society.

Worried about vigilante attacks, a high court judge issued a lifelong injunction in January, forbidding English newspapers from printing anything that would disclose the boys' location and from using any recent pictures.

Britain's attorney general is pursuing contempt of court charges against the Manchester Evening News for an article that authorities say had the potential to identify their whereabouts.

But foreign media - increasingly accessible in Britain via the Internet - are not bound by the injunction. Some publications have said they would pay as much as 35,000 ($50,000) for a picture of one of the boys and would use it without hesitation.

"It's going to be very difficult" to maintain the boys' anonymity, says Nacro's Garside. There is a "reasonable assumption that they will be exposed," given the intense interest in and coverage of the case.

"One of our concerns, apart from the obvious one - that the boys could be attacked - is the danger of the crowd getting it into their head that it's Venables and Thompson when it's an innocent bystander," says Garside.

It is not an idle concern.

Last year, the News of the World suspended a "name and shame" campaign that identified more than 80 convicted pedophiles after a series of attacks. In some cases, vigilantes targeted innocent men, including a pediatrician.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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