Episode 43 - The Brutal Murder of James Bulger – Part 3

Thank you for joining me for the final episode in the story of James Bulger. This is the story of the 2-year-old boy taken from his mother’s side at a shopping mall and brutally murdered by two ten-year-old boys in England.  

In this episode, we will walk through the trial of John Venables and Robert Thompson and the sentence that Britain’s youngest killers received. But more importantly, we will cover what came after the trial, the public’s response to James’s murder and the way Britain and its laws changed in the wake of his terrible death.    


In the previous episodes, we covered James’s close relationship with his mother Denise and his father Ralph. Both were devoted and hands-on parents whose worlds revolved around their sons. This made it all the more devastating when James went missing from his mother’s side in just a split second.   

After viewing the CCTV footage from the mall, officers investigating James’s disappearance realised just four minutes stood between him standing by his mother’s side and being led out of the mall by two young boys. Initially, they thought the boys must have just been up to mischief and had likely taken James as a prank and were playing with him somewhere close by. They could not have been further from the truth.  

It took three days for James’s body to be found. He had been violently tortured before his death and left to be run over on the railway tracks to conceal what had been done to his tiny body.   

When a member of the public came forward to identify one of the boys from the CCTV footage, investigators hardly believed that two ten-year-old boys could have been involved in such a brutal act. But after interviewing the boys, they were left with no doubt that the two had abducted James with the intention to kill him.  

While the public wrestled with the circumstances of James’s disappearance and murder, investigators were left with the unenviable task of presenting a case in court. But how do you balance the horror of a child’s murder with the fact that the perpetrators were children themselves?  

Somebody Knows More | Listen Notes

For more horrifying true crime stories, please click below:


Denise and Ralph: 

With the funeral behind them and the trial not yet underway, Denise and Ralph began to cope with James’s loss in different ways. While Denise went inside herself and closed off to the world, Ralph sought comfort at the bottom of a bottle. They spent less and less time together. What had held them together was James; without him, they were islands – completely consumed by their grief and unable to find a way back to each other. And yet, one month after James’s murder and just days after what would have been his third birthday, a light appeared amidst the darkness. Denise found out she was pregnant.  

Denise recalls that finding out she was pregnant literally saved her life. Without the burgeoning life growing within her she had no hope, no direction and nothing to live for. That is not to say her pregnancy was plain sailing or filled with joy. Remember this is a mother who had lost one child to stillbirth and another to murder. When she gave birth to this child, all going well, she would be a mother of three with only one child in her arms. Imagine the conflict of feeling both joy at the kick of your unborn child and guilt for experiencing happiness when your other child has been taken from you so brutally. Guilt had become a constant companion to Denise. Just one moment she had taken her eyes off James and her hand out of his. Just moments stood between him walking out of the butchery and her racing outside to find him.  

The deep mental and emotional fears about losing another child would be more than most of us could handle. But for Denise and Ralph, they also had the upcoming trial to contend with.  


While Denise struggled to overcome the anxiety that plagued her every moment and attempted to stay healthy for her unborn child, officers were poring over each detail of James’s murder as they prepared for the trial. They explained to James’s parents that given the age of the defendants the law presumed that they were incapable of committing such an offence. Therefore their role was to prove they not only murdered him but did so knowing that it was wrong.   

In the weeks leading up to the trial, John and Robert’s parents were moved to different parts of the country under aliases after they received death threats. No such protection was offered to the Bulger family. Instead, the media camped outside their house, questions were thrown at them as they attempted to buy groceries or visit family for comfort.  

A week before the trial was set to begin, the lead prosecutor visited Denise and Ralph to warn them of what would be revealed at the trial including very specific details about James’s injuries. Denise decided not to attend the trial and therefore she didn’t want to hear what atrocities had been carried out against her child.  She was heavily pregnant by this stage and wanted to protect her already wounded mental health. Ralph on the other hand, intended to attend each day and face his son’s killers. He wanted to know what had occurred, so he had some time to process it before the trial.  

It was clear even before the trial got underway, that the legal system was underprepared for how to carry out proceedings where children are the ones accused. A decision was made that the proceedings would match those of an adult trial with the judge and officials in full legal regalia. Picture a huge, dimly lit wooden courtroom and legal personnel in white curled wigs with long dark robes. In fact, the only difference in the court was that John and Robert would be sitting on raised chairs so they could see out of the dock which were designed for adults. Their parents were within arm’s reach of where they sat.  

On the 1st of November 1993, the full trial opened at Sessions House Preston. The country had never seen two children charged with murder and predictably that caused unprecedented public interest. That day was the first time Ralph ever laid eyes on the boys accused of murdering his son.  

As proceedings got underway both boys denied the charges of murder, abduction and attempted abduction. The attempted abduction charges were related to the child the boys had failed to abduct before they eventually settled on taking James.  

In what would later be recognised as a miscalculation on their behalf, the prosecution decided not to present all the evidence they had against John and Robert. The details of James’s murder were so horrific that they have never been made public.  It is only the officers involved in the investigation and the prosecutors who took the case to court that truly know the details of the horror he endured. This decision was made to both protect the jury from being further traumatised by an already highly emotional case and because they felt that the case against the two was so strong that the information would be unnecessary to secure a conviction and adequate sentence.   

They couldn’t have been more wrong.  

I won’t recap what was done to 2-year-old James as the details are just too gruesome. But the premise of the prosecution was that the boys knowingly abducted James and killed him. The court heard recordings of their full interviews where investigators questioned the boys about their understanding of right and wrong. They were given testimony from child psychiatrists who had assessed the boys after their arrest and they too concurred that the boys understood that taking a child from his mother and hurting him was wrong.  

Robert was considered to have played a leading role in the abduction though John had expressed that it was his idea to take James down to the railway line. Over and above the testimony of expert witnesses and the boys themselves there was a great deal of physical evidence tying them to the scene. This included the blue paint found on their clothing, shoe imprints, and James’s blood on their footwear.  

Throughout the gruesome recollection of the injuries that James sustained including showing pictures of his injuries to the jury, the two accused sat relatively unmoved. They were at times restless but there were no tears, no shame evident and at times the two of them giggled and smirked as testimony was shared. After that, Ralph stopped attending the proceedings, it was too much to bear to watch his son’s killers so indifferent to the evidence.   

Tragically, there had been a number of missed opportunities for James’s life to be spared. At least 38 people had seen James with John and Robert between leaving the mall and the train tracks where he was found. While some had approached the trio and asked if the children were ok others had walked past.  John and Robert explained James was their brother or that he was lost, and they were taking him to the police. There is no way any of them could have foreseen the evil lurking within the two young boys. 

The defence’s position was that the 10-year-olds had merely carried out an act of mischief that went badly wrong. Each of the children’s lawyers blamed the other side for initiating the abduction and carrying out the blows which ended James’s life. But both lawyers concurred that John and Robert should be found guilty of manslaughter at the most and not murder. After all, they were just children.  

Neither John nor Robert testified in the trial.   

On the 24th of November 1993, the jury retired for deliberation. That afternoon Ralph and Denise were called back to the court. The jury had reached a verdict in the murder charges. Given the short deliberation time Ralph, Denise and the prosecution feared that the boys were going to be acquitted.  

The jury unanimously found both John Venables and Robert Thompson guilty of James Bulger’s murder. They were the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century in Great Britain.   

Everyone who had been involved in the case was relieved, to say the least. It must have been no small burden for the jury to make such a decision against two 11-year-old boys. And the evidence they had to listen to no doubt haunts them to this day.  

With the guilty verdict, the judge made a ruling that the identities of the boys could be made public and with that, the world came to know John and Robert by their names, not just their reputations. In his closing statement he commented:  

‘The killing of James Bulger was an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity. This child of two was taken from his mother on a journey of over two miles and then, on the railway line, was battered to death without mercy. Then his body was placed across a railway line so that it would be run over by a train, in an attempt to conceal the murder. In my judgement, your conduct was both cunning and very wicked. “The sentence that I pass upon you both is that you should be detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure in such a place and under such conditions as the Secretary of State may now direct and that means you will be securely detained for very, very many years until the Home Secretary is satisfied that you have matured and are fully rehabilitated and are no longer a danger.’ 

‘How it came about that two mentally normal boys aged ten, of average intelligence, committed this terrible crime is very hard to comprehend. It is not for me to pass judgement on their upbringing, but I suspect that exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation. In fairness to Mrs Thompson and Mr and Mrs Venables, it is very much to their credit that during the police interviews they used every effort to get their sons to tell the truth. ‘The people of Bootle and Walton and all involved in this tragic case will never forget the tragic circumstances of James Bulger’s murder. Everyone in court will especially wish Mrs Bulger well in the months ahead and hope that the new baby will bring her peace and happiness. I hope that all involved in this case, whether witness or otherwise, will find peace at Christmas time.’ 

With the trial over, Denise and Ralph retreated back to their home and attempted to return to some sense of normalcy. But what is normal when your only child has been murdered? And with the verdicts and identities now public the media interest only intensified.  

And yet, Ralph and Denise hoped against hope that they could somehow find a way forward, a way through.  

Alas, their greatest battle was yet to come.  

On the 29th of November, the judge gave his recommendations as to the sentence the boys should receive. While everyone involved had expected a term of life given the brutality and premeditation of the crime, the judge’s ruling was that a minimum term of eight years was justified. The sentence was to be served in a secure care centre for juveniles. This would make both boys eligible for release at the age of eighteen. It was a heartbreaking moment for the family. In their minds, it didn’t represent even one year for each of the hours that James was missing.  

Days later the Lord Chief Justice recommended the minimum term be increased to ten years. He made no comment about why he made this ruling.  

The announcement of such a short term of imprisonment caused an immediate public outcry. No one could fathom how a judge could determine that eight years was enough time to both punish John and Robert for their crime and rehabilitate them enough for a safe release. In response, The Sun newspaper launched a petition calling for a harsher sentence of a minimum of 15 years, meaning the boys would be 25 before they could be released. Despite being heavily pregnant by this time Denise threw herself into campaigning for signatures. Where they had once shunned the media, Denise and Ralph now recognised they could use it to their advantage. The couple gave interviews to magazines and newspapers and within weeks the petition had secured over one hundred thousand signatures. There was no clearer affirmation for Denise and Ralph of the public opinion on the sentence the boys should face.  

Amidst the chaos, Denise and Ralph joyfully welcomed a baby boy into the world. On the 16th of December 1993, Michael James Bulger was born, 10 months after James’s murder. Both Denise and Ralph hoped that this baby would give them a new purpose and bring them back together after the distance that had formed between them since James’s death.  

But neither had the means to cope with their grief effectively. Neither received counselling and they relied on their families for support. Ralph continued to seek solace in alcohol as a means to escape the pain which resided in every cell of his body and Denise continued to hide away, rarely venturing outside. Adding to their misery was the intense media interest in the case meaning there were reporters camped outside their homes each morning. There’s only so much a person can take before emotional pain moves from inside to the outside. The final straw was when Ralph uttered words he could never take back. He told Denise she was to blame for James’s murder and that she should never have let go of his hand. While Denise had these same feelings towards herself, hearing them said out loud broke something in her.  After that, things were never the same between them again.  

Meanwhile, the petition was continuing to gain traction and in 1994 it was presented to the Home Secretary for his consideration. To Denise and Ralph’s relief in 1994, it was announced that the minimum term for John and Robert would be increased to 15 years.  

But a win in court did little to improve things at home for the couple. As the one-year anniversary of James’s death passed, Ralph moved from solace in a bottle to that found in the arms of another person.  Eventually, the opportunity for reconciliation passed and Denise became solely focused on her young son, she no longer had the energy to reconcile her marriage. 18 months after James’s murder the couple separated and Ralph moved out.  

To add to the already challenging circumstances a fight was coming that neither Ralph nor Denise expected. While John and Robert were being held in secure care centres their lawyers had not given up the fight to shorten their sentences. They claimed that the increase in the minimum term was in response to public hysteria, not facts and evidence. To add insult to injury, the lawyers for John and Robert provided psychiatric reports about the boys which referred to an excellent response they had been having to therapy while in custody. They added that if the boys were imprisoned past their eighteenth birthdays they would have to be moved to an adult institution which would cause “major concerns” for their wellbeing. The media printed stories of the pain and suffering the boys were experiencing during their incarceration. It was salt in the wounds of James’s family who had experienced nothing but pain and suffering since the day their boy was murdered.  

The perseverance of the boy’s lawyers paid off when in 1997, the minimum term was overturned by the House of Lords which ruled that it was unlawful for the Home Secretary to have had any involvement in increasing the sentence. In response, the law was changed to mean that all determinations of sentences for underage killers would now be made by the House of Lords with no involvement from the home secretary. John and Robert were the first to benefit from this change.  

During their time in custody, Robert was held in a care facility in Manchester while John was sent to Merseyside. Whilst residing in the care facilities both Robert and John were given detailed training on how to conceal their names and the crime they had committed. They received education and rehabilitation which included intensive therapy and counselling. Both boys were reported to have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder with John reportedly having flashbacks and nightmares about the murder.  

It was reported that life within the facility was fairly easy for the boys. They had their own rooms and ensuites, TVs, gaming consoles and toys of every description. In fact, it seemed that their lives on the inside were somewhat better than what they had experienced in their own homes. Media also reported that they were provided with designer clothes to wear and had access to soccer and pool games at their leisure.  

Two years after the overturning of the minimum term, lawyers for the boys took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. They argued that the boy’s trial had not been impartial given that they were just 11 years old at the time and therefore unable to comprehend the proceedings in an adult court. They also claimed that the trial was inhuman and degrading treatment. The latter claim was dismissed but the court upheld their claim that the boys had been denied a fair trial due to the manner in which the trial was conducted.  In March 1999 the court ruled that there had been a violation of the boy’s human rights regarding the fairness of their trial.  

In September of that same year, Ralph and Denise appealed the Human Rights Courts ruling. Furthermore, they attempted to convince the same court that victims of crime should have the right to be involved in determining the sentence of their perpetrator. This claim was denied.  

In response to the outcome at the Human Rights court, the Chief Justice invited Denise and Ralph to provide their opinion on what they thought was the appropriate sentence for John and Robert. Finally, it felt like their perspective was going to be heard and they would have a say in the final sentence. As they had all along, Denise and Ralph asked that the boys be sentenced to life. After hearing their views the Chief Justice proceeded with his original ruling and reduced the minimum term of imprisonment to eight years. He stated ‘The one overriding mitigating feature of the offence is the age of the two boys when the crime was committed.  Once again, Ralph and Denise, the parents of the victim at the heart of the case, had been ignored.   

It was another devastating blow for all involved in James’s case, not least of all his parents. They had fought tooth and nail since that horrific day in 1993 to both honour their son’s memory and to ceaselessly fight for justice in his name. By the time this ruling came through the boys had already served over seven years and their release was imminent.  

In 2001 the parole board ruled that John and Robert were no longer a threat to public safety and they could be released. Their terms had expired less than six months earlier. The home secretary approved their release, and they walked free a couple of weeks later.  

Both John and Robert were given new identities including new passports, national insurance numbers and medical records. When they were released they were moved to unknown locations to begin their new lives under a type of witness protection programme. They are subject to lifelong licence which is a form of parole, whereby their actions will be monitored for the rest of their lives. There are certain specific terms of release which they must both adhere to which include not being able to contact each other or the Bulger family. They must never re-enter the Merseyside region. They must adhere to a curfew, and they must report at predetermined timeframes to a probation officer. Any breach of these rules or any action which is deemed to present a threat to the public would result in them being taken to prison.  

After the trial and the initial publication of the boy’s identities, an injunction was issued that legally prevents any publication of information pertaining to the boy’s new identities or activities outside of prison for the rest of their life. It was the first such ruling of its kind in Britain’s history. In issuing the injunction the judge commented The injunction was granted because there was a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk if their identities became known.”  

It was a re-traumatising blow for James’s family. Not only had their son’s killers been released but with their new identities and cover stories, they could be anywhere. Who’s to say that they would follow their parole conditions and not seek revenge or to further inflict suffering upon the Bulger family? Denise was petrified that she would walk down the street one day and run into one of her son’s killers and Ralph didn’t know if he would be able to restrain himself from lashing out if he ever saw one of them.  

It turned out, they were right to be concerned about the boy’s potential for harm on the outside.  

In 2010 the ministry of Justice revealed that John Venables had been returned to prison for a violation of his parole conditions. While officials wouldn’t name what crime he had committed they did comment that they were “extremely serious allegations”. Media later reported that he had been accused of child pornography offences. He was alleged to have downloaded 57 indecent images of children over a 12-month period and then proceeded to share the images on the internet. With this conviction, it was then revealed John had previously been cautioned for cocaine possession and that he had had a sexual affair with one of the women charged with caring for him while in custody. 

He plead guilty and was sentenced to two years imprisonment.  

When he was released in 2011 he was given yet another new identity as his previous identity had been compromised and the police believed his safety was jeopardised. A member of the public had identified John as a child sex offender and posted his photograph on a website which stated the locations of known sex offenders.  

In 2017 John was again charged with possession of child sexual abuse images. He was sentenced to three years in prison but to date, he has not been released. In 2019 it was publicly reported that authorities in Britain were attempting to resettle John overseas as the cost to maintain his anonymity was too high in the country in which he had committed his crimes.  

No information regarding Robert’s actions since release has been published.  

In 2001 the Manchester Evening news breached the injunction banning the identification of the boys or their locations. They were fined thirty thousand pounds for contempt of court and ordered to pay court costs totalling one hundred and twenty thousand pounds.   

Worldwide impact:  

It is no surprise that there was an outpouring of grief and support for the Bulgers in the community of Kirkby and Liverpool, the areas where James and his family had spent their entire lives. But what they could never have predicted was the impact James’s death had on the country and even the world.  

James’s disappearance was reported around the globe. The day the media reported he had been found with brutal injuries the world lost some of its innocence and we were reminded that evil lurks in the most unexpected places and faces. From England to New Zealand and everywhere in between parents held their children that much closer. For a long time, children weren’t allowed out of sight of their parents even for a minute. Mothers and fathers could well relate to Denise’s story of taking her eyes off James for mere moments as she reached into her purse for money. In the next instant, her child was gone. Baby reins flew off the shelves as caregivers sought to have some assurance that what had happened to James would never happen to them.  

Thousands of cards and letters were sent to the Bulger family including from the Royal family. They received thousands of dollars in donations which were put towards Michael James’s future. Many of the toys which were gifted to them were donated to local charities and hospitals.  

After separating from Ralph Denise went on to remarry and gave birth to two more sons. Denise’s boys all know about James though they have never met him. He is spoken about as their older brother and to this day Denise mourns for the joy he would have had in such a role. Parenting her children after the loss of James presented a unique challenge as she sought to balance her intense anxiety around them being out of her sight and fostering a sense of independence as every child should have. But there was no innocence in their childhood, they all knew what had happened to James and how that had impacted their mum.  

Ralph also remarried and has three daughters with his wife.  

While Ralph and Denise no longer have a relationship, they did join forces to present a united front when fighting for justice for James.  

Changes in law:  

At the time of James’s murder, the Prime Minister responded to the crime by saying, ‘It is time for us to put the victim before the crime. We must condemn a little more and understand a little less.’ And yet Ralph and Denise’s experience was anything but what this notion implied. At every turn, it felt like the thoughts, feelings and safety of John and Robert was put before theirs.  

And yet, Ralph and Denise both overcame their grief and distress to implement truly meaningful change. Despite feeling let down by the justice system they decided that the best people to affect a change were the very ones who were negatively impacted by it.  

Alongside the aforementioned changes to the law related to the determination of sentences for underage killers, there were two further significant changes that James’s case brought about. Despite failing to persuade the Human Rights Court that victims should be involved in a perpetrator’s sentencing, on home grounds they received more support for the idea. They proposed that victims should be allowed to tell the court the impact of the offence upon them. This would serve to influence how long the perpetrator should serve. This suggestion was accepted by parliament. These days we refer to this aspect of sentencing as victim impact statements. In England and Wales, these were introduced solely due to James’s case.   

They also argued that should an offender be offered a plea deal to a lesser charge say manslaughter instead of murder, the victim’s family should be consulted before the plea can be accepted. While the family would have no right to object to the deal, they should be given a fair opportunity to voice their opinion on the matter. This too was accepted.   


There is no way to adequately summarise this case. At its heart, it is a story of incomprehensible loss. A two-year-old boy was robbed of his life, his opportunity to go to school, to have a third birthday, to have brothers and sisters, to grow up, to get married, to experience the world. And it is the story of his parents who were robbed of those same things.  

It is also the story of two children themselves who for whatever reason carried out a horrific attack against an innocent toddler. At this point, it’s clear we will never know why they did what they did. Even if we knew, could we ever understand those reasons?  

Beyond that, it is a tale of a justice system which was never set up to deal with such young offenders. It is not until something like this happens that society could even comprehend the need for such considerations. Was there a better way to deal with such heinous acts before the trial began, at the trial, after the trial, at sentencing, or during their imprisonment? It’s easy to look back and say yes to all of those questions now that we know what happened – but at the time how would you have been able to balance the need for justice for the victim and the rights of the two children sitting in the dock?  

I will leave you with these words taken as an excerpt from Ralph’s Bulgers book –My James. Denise has also written a book called “I let him go” about James’s life and her experiences after his murder. I urge you to read them both.   

‘My darling James, I hope you are keeping well and that you are safe and warm and happy. I hope you have made lots of new friends and that you are all playing games and having fun. I wish you were with me now, son, by my side so that I could put my arm around you and tell you how deeply sorry I am. Your dad is fishing today, and I wish with all my heart I could magic you up beside me. 

You would love it and I looked forward so much to teaching you how to fish. ‘You were such a loving and kind little boy, and I wanted to say thank you for being the most fantastic little lad ever. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about you. From the moment I wake up in the morning to the time I shut my eyes at night, you are with me, and I hope you can still feel me with you. I try not to think about all the horrible things that happened to you that day and try to concentrate on your lovely smile and the glorious sound of your laughter. That was the best music I ever heard and I want to be able to hear it for the rest of my life. You were a joy to be with, James, and I miss you every single day. Whatever happens now, I want you to know that I have tried with all my heart to fight for you. I will keep on with the battle just so that you know how much you meant to me. ‘Your dad is so sad without you, lad. And that’s because you were so very special to everyone who was lucky enough to meet you. You made me the happiest man alive and the proudest father on earth. I sometimes thought my heart would burst with joy when I watched you play or held your hand as you were sleeping. I hope you knew how much we all loved you and that you were happy for the few short years you spent with us. You will always travel with me in my heart. 

Episode Credits: 

Host – Rhiannon Doe 

Voiceover – Kwesi  

Website layout & design – Fran Howard 

Research & writing – Sophie Wild