LONDON - It's a murder that haunts Britain still. The victim was a 2-year-old with wide eyes, narrow lips and a mop of hair. The killers were two 10-year-olds. The opening moments of the crime were captured on security cameras. And more than 30 people saw the three boys during a 2 1/2 -mile journey to a death by a railroad track.
This week, the February 1993 killing of James Bulger is back in the news as a three-member parole board panel conducts separate hearings with the murderers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, now both 18.
Yesterday, Thompson was scheduled to go before a panel consisting of a judge, a psychiatrist and an independent member, at a secret location. Earlier this week, Venables reportedly met with the panel.
If granted releases from locally run juvenile detention units, the pair will re-enter society with new identities and a court order that protects their anonymity in the news media in England and Wales.
"Everybody knows that getting out is a certainty," said Robin Makin, the attorney for James Bulger's father, Ralph. Makin expects them to be released by August, at the latest, as they turn 19.
With television specials and tabloid coverage reopening the wounds from the case, fears have been expressed in the media that Venables and Thompson could be hunted down by vigilantes. The court order guaranteeing their anonymity in media in England and Wales apparently can't stop information from seeping out.
"They will have new names, new homes, new jobs, new passports, new National Insurance and DSS [Department of Social Security] documents, and a thoroughly researched, impeccably detailed, finely crafted new past," the Observer newspaper reported. "They will be starting new lives. The question is: will they ever get to finish them?"
The public is left not with images of two young men, but with a few photos of two children, including recently leaked mug shots that show the killers appearing like most any other boys.
At the time of the killing, they were about 4 1/2 feet tall.
"The case is sort of a landmark in English social history," Makin said. "The images struck a mood in the nation. Why did all the people stand by? Is society degenerating? So many strands caught the imagination. And it's a Liverpool case and Liverpool is an emotional place."
The lives of Bulger, Venables and Thompson intersected at the Strand Shopping Center in Bootle, near Liverpool.
James Bulger slipped away from his mother, Denise, as she was paying a butcher's bill. He had the misfortune to cross paths with Thompson and Venables, two persistent truants from broken families. The older boys lured the toddler, who followed them, a haunting and grainy image picked up on security cameras.
During their ill-fated journey, the children were challenged by several adults but were never stopped. Eventually, James was dropped on his head and was beaten with bricks and an iron bar.
His body was left on a railroad track.
James Bulger's killing caused an outcry. It moved a future prime minister, Tony Blair, to say, "The news bulletins of the last week have been like hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to take up and look unflinchingly at what we see."
A three-week trial ended with Venables and Thompson being convicted of murder and abduction. The judge ordered them to be held at Her Majesty's Pleasure for at least eight years before being considered for parole.
A judge later raised the minimum sentence to 10 years, and then-Home Secretary Michael Howard decreed a 15-year minimum term, a decision eventually quashed by the House of Lords.
Two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the boys had not received a fair trail because of their ages.
In October, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, effectively ended their minimum sentence, setting the stage for their parole hearing.
"Having become responsible young men, they will have to live with, and will be marked by, what they did when children of 10," the judge said.
Through an intensive rehabilitation program, Venables and Thompson have apparently progressed to the point where they have both been allowed outside their locked security units for public outings. They both have attained good marks through secondary school and apparently have lost their strong Liverpool accents, according to the Observer.
The newspaper said Thompson has seen Manchester United play at the team's home stadium, attended the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon and gone to shopping malls. He has an interest in design and made a wedding dress.
Venables has visited pubs, played five-a-side soccer and been whitewater rafting, the Observer reported, noting that on one shopping trip, he was identified by a member of the public.
In Liverpool, sentiment remains strongly against the teens.
"Do you think Thompson and Venables should be released now?" readers of the Liverpool Echo were asked. Nearly 42,000 people responded and by a 5-to-1 margin favored keeping the teens in custody.
James Bulger's mother, who remarried, has called for the teens to spend more time in detention.
"It will be too risky to let either of them out before anyone knows what they are going to be like as adults," Denise Fergus told the Liverpool Echo recently."'I don't believe they have changed inside. All Thompson and Venables have had so far is kid glove treatment, but now they should be sent to a young offenders institution where their true natures will come out."
But Mark Leech, chief executive of Unlock, a charity for ex-offenders, said he met Thompson and Venables three years ago and they "seemed like normal teenage boys," who "didn't come across as evil in any sense."
"The time has come for these two young men to be released," Leech told Britain's Press Association. "Nothing that anyone can do will bring James Bulger back. We should allow them now to get on with their lives."