Tuesday 21 May 2019

25 years later, Venables still haunts the psyche

Hidden from the mob: Jon Venables
Hidden from the mob: Jon Venables
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

In the Information Age, any crime can shock the world. Whether it's a celebrity having some jewellery stolen from their hotel or footage of someone being bullied in a small American town, the proliferation of social media ensures that anything can go viral at any time.

Back in 1993, however, it was a very different story. Satellite TV was in its relative infancy and while those people in Ireland who had access to CNN were able to see the OJ chase unfold live, most stories were confined to their own country.

But the James Bulger case was different. This was an atrocity which genuinely did shock people all over the world.

A quarter of a century later, and this is one story which, incredibly, still has the power to shock.

Not just because even a cursory review of the details of the crime committed by 10-year-old Jon Venables and his friend Robert Thompson is still powerful enough to make you despair for humanity - but for the fact that one of the killers, Jon Venables, just won't go away.

Following his release in 2001, along with Thompson, after they had served eight years for the kidnap, torture and murder of two-year-old James, the pair were given lifelong anonymity and strict probation conditions.

There was fury in their native Liverpool when it emerged that they had been granted such a strict protection order, but the scenes of barely contained mob hysteria at the time were proof that the authorities were correct in their decision.

If you ever wanted to see how easy it is to convince otherwise decent people that they really should lynch a child, then the response of some Liverpudlians, righteous in their anger and vengeful in their wrath, was a grim illustration.

Residents banded together for angry marches. Local DJs broke into tears on air and demanded that something be done about these two kids who had just killed a kid. It was horrifying to witness.

Not as horrifying as the crime the pair had committed, obviously. But as an example of how quickly the veneer of civility and decency can slip, to be replaced by demands for frontier justice, it remains a salutary reminder that when you rile enough people, things can turn murderously ugly with remarkable ease.

Since their release under assumed identities, Thompson has, by all accounts, been a model ex-con. Rumours pop up from time to time, of course, and one of the problems with a widely publicised case of someone receiving a new identity is that innocent people can be mistaken for the guilty, and several blameless people have been forced to deny that they are Thompson.

Venables, who was sentenced to 20 months for possession of extreme and brutal child porn this week, was always a different proposition and has, since his release, been a constant thorn in the side of the police.

He has ignored probation conditions, come to the attention of the authorities for a variety of different reasons and this latest conviction is not his first for possession of such material.

And still he retains his new identity.

Not surprisingly, the family of James Bulger are horrified at the news, and people from Liverpool who still remember that day in 1993 are furious. Even Venables' first defence solicitor, Laurence Lees, now admits that: "When I first set eyes on him, he looked like an eight-year-old. He was very polite. I thought he couldn't be involved in something as heinous as this. He was such a convincing little liar.

"When he was found out, he broke into hysterical tears. It was then that that I realised he was capable of such a heinous crime."

So, Venables was a liar then and, as we have seen, he's a liar now. His constant breaches of his terms of probation make a mockery of his apology to the Bulger family this week. The fact that one of the items seized from his property was a 'paedophile manual' with instructions on how to kidnap and torture a child also provides nauseating proof that he hasn't changed. He never will. Nobody wants to admit it, but some people are born bad.

That the UK authorities have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to both rehabilitate and protect him is an understandable source of anger and the fact even his former defence solicitor thinks he is still a menace is ominous.

But Mr Lees was also correct when he pointed out that: "I have every sympathy for the Bulger family. Anonymity has been wasted on him... but if there was no anonymity, we would be returning to the mob rule scenes back in 1993."

Protecting his identity is actually a way of protecting society from itself. As soon as he is revealed, he will be killed. Of that there is no doubt.

Twenty five years on, the wound is still raw, but mob justice is no justice at all.

Tempting though it sometimes seems...

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss