The pink-cheeked 10-year-old staring from the front pages of Britain’s newspapers is, some argue, the face of evil.
The photo is a mug shot of Jon Venables, one of Britain’s most infamous criminals, convicted along with another boy of murdering a toddler in Liverpool in 1993.
The crime shocked Britain and has remained vivid in the public memory, due partly to video images, replayed countless times on television, of two-year-old James Bulger being led to his death by the two bigger boys.
When officials announced this week that Venables — now 27 and free on parole since 2001 — is back behind bars for an undisclosed breach of his release conditions, the debate erupted again. Are Venables and co-accused Robert Thompson evil child-killers who should never have been released, or damaged children who deserve a chance at rehabilitation?
“What they did to that child ... I don’t think he should be allowed in the community,” said Beverly Dolan, 31, who comes from the Liverpool area and remembers the crime well, said on Friday.
The pair spent eight years in juvenile detention for the murder of Bulger, whom they abducted from a shopping center in Liverpool while he waited outside a shop for his mother. The boys dragged the toddler through town — telling inquiring adults that he was their brother — to a railway line, where they hit him with bricks and metal bars, poured paint in his eyes and finally left him on the tracks, where his body was cut in half by a train.
The killers were ordered detained “at Her Majesty’s pleasure” — an indefinite sentence. They were freed in 2001, when they were 18, and given new identities. Only their immediate families and a small group of senior officials know who they really are, and a legal injunction bars the reporting of anything that could identify them.
Officials confirmed this week that Venables had been sent back to prison in recent days, but did not disclose the reason, although Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the huge public interest in the case meant more information would be released in the next few weeks.
That is not enough for many victims’ rights advocates, who say the facts should be made public now.
“Venables and Thompson have been given everything on a plate and now we’re not even allowed to know the circumstances surrounding this — it is a disgrace,” said victims’ rights advocate Helen Newlove, whose husband was murdered by a gang of youths in 2007.
Newspapers have filled the gap with speculation. The Daily Mirror reported that Venables had returned to Liverpool, a violation of his parole terms. The Daily Mail said he was jailed after being involved in a brawl. Others said authorities had grown worried by his drug and alcohol use.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Thursday that he understood public outrage at the case, but said legal rules prevented more information being released.
Others expressed sympathy for Venables, saying his new identity is very likely to be exposed now that he is in prison, undoing years of effort by him and the authorities.
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