When Killer Boys Grow Up

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In 1993, a mall security camera captured a shaky image of two 10-year-old boys leading a much smaller boy out of a Liverpool, England, shopping center. The boys lured James Bulger, 2, away from his mother, who was shopping, and led him on a long walk across town. The excursion ended at a railroad track. There, inexplicably, the older boys tortured the toddler, kicking him, smearing paint on his face and pummeling him to death with bricks before leaving him on the track to be dismembered by a train. The boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, then went off to watch cartoons.

Today the boys are 18-year-old men, and after spending eight years in juvenile facilities, they have been deemed fit for release--probably this spring. The dilemma now confronting the English justice system is how to reintegrate the notorious duo into a society that remains horrified by their crimes and skeptical about their rehabilitation. Last week Judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss decided the young men were in so much danger that they needed an unprecedented shield to protect them upon release. For the rest of their lives, Venables and Thompson will have a right to anonymity. All English media outlets are banned from publishing any information about their whereabouts or the new identities the government will help them establish. Photos of the two or even details about their current looks are also prohibited.

In the U.S., which is harder on juvenile criminals than England, such a ruling seems inconceivable. "We're clearly the most punitive in the industrialized world," says Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University professor who studies juvenile justice. Over the past decade, the trend in the U.S. has been to allow publication of ever more information about underage offenders. U.S. courts also give more weight to press freedom than English courts, which, for example, ban all video cameras.

But even for Britain, the order is extraordinary. The victim's family is enraged, as are the ever ravenous British tabloids. "What right have they got to be given special protection as adults?" asks Bulger's mother Denise Fergus. Newspaper editorials have insisted that citizens have a right to know if Venables or Thompson move in next door. Says conservative Member of Parliament Humfrey Malins: "It almost leaves you with the feeling that the nastier the crime, the greater the chance for a passport to a completely new life."

But perhaps Venables and Thompson have earned that chance. Both have expressed remorse for their crime and have spent years in intensive counseling. Plus, Judge Butler-Sloss based her decision on some very real threats facing the two. Bulger's father vowed just last October to "try my best to hunt them down." The British tabloids would like to do the same.

In the only other remotely similar case, another British child murderer, Mary Bell, was granted anonymity in 1984--but only to protect her infant daughter. To date, Bell's whereabouts remain unknown, and she has not returned to her old ways. She did, however, receive an undisclosed sum for a book on her life story.