European court says two boys didn't get fair trial in Britain; Defendants were convicted of kidnapping, killing tot


LONDON -- The European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that two 10-year-old boys who kidnapped and killed 2-year-old James Bulger in a Liverpool shopping center in 1993 had not received a fair trial in Britain.

The judges said Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had been too young to take part effectively in a procedure meant for adults and that the home secretary at the time, Michael Howard, had erred in increasing their eight-year jail sentence to 15 years.

The boys have served six years. While the European decision does not affect their convictions, it could be the basis for lawyers to seek their release in British courts.

The crime generated horror around the world when still photos from security camera videotapes showed an older boy calmly leading James away by the hand and, later, two youths beating the toddler.

The kidnapping took place while the child's mother was distracted as she stood in line at a butcher shop in a commercial arcade. James's body was found two days later by children playing on a railroad embankment two miles from the shopping center. He had been thrown onto the tracks from a bridge and hit by a train.

The age of James' tormentors, the methodical manner in which they made off with him and the brutality of his killing provoked a national debate over social neglect of the country's young.

Current Home Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament he needed time to consider the 120-page ruling before acting in the case but that reforms would have to be made in the way juvenile offenders are tried and sentenced.

The boys, both 11 by the time of the 17-day trial, were the youngest children in Britain to be tried for murder in this century.

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