Friday, March 12, 2010

Lynch Mob Rule

I'm beginning to feel a bit like Nostradamus. The plot for my next novel involves a man being killed by a poisoned curry. Lo and behold a few weeks later a story appeared of a woman arrested for murdering her lover by poisoning his curry. Another central theme are two men who killed an old old man when they were children, served time in jail, and then were released despite a tabloid brouhaha, given new identities and a chance at redemption, only for their past to refuse to die. This was loosely based on a real life case here in the UK, one that made headlines across the world: the kidnap and murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 by two small boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged ten. Now the boys, now men, one of them at least, are back in the headlines, a bit like my fictional killers.

The case is now a grim part of British folklore. The chilling CCTV images of the two boys leading the toddler away by his hand imprinted on the nation's consciousness. The details were horrific. It seemed to go against nature. Two young kids who abducted a child in broad daylight in the middle of a busy shopping centre, led him to a violent death, and then degraded and mutilated his body. The outcry echoed for years. For the British tabloids, at the front of the mob, burning torches in hand, it was open and shut: the two boys were evil incarnate. For their awful crimes they should rot in jail for eternity. Every time their names were mentioned, or indeed any time children who killed made the news, or even when a small child was murdered and abducted, the newspapers would call James Bulger's mother  Denise for a comment. Understandably, her hatred for the two boys who killed her son was undimmed. But then she had never had time away from the media to grieve. There is no way you can ever recover from such a loss. However, over time, perhaps you can find some kind of acceptance. No such chance for James' mum. The tabloids kept her grief raw and perpetual, always seeking to obtain a comment and leech her anger. As a reporter I called her once, via her solicitor, got the quote my newspaper wanted - by now she was very practised - but it felt unreal, almost fake. All reporters know there are various 'rentagobs' to whom they go for a colourful quote, usually right-wing, swivel-eyed lunatics who mutter the phrase 'Political correctness gone mad' at any passing hack in return for their name in the papers. It seemed immoral to be using a grieving woman whose son was murdered in the most hideous manner in such a way.

While the tabloids bayed for the boy's blood, those of a more liberal bent struggled. Here was a truly terrible crime. There is no doubt the boys knew what they were doing (though, crucially, whether they fully comprehended the consequences of their actions was another debate entirely.) There was no doubt they should in some way be punished. While the boys' upbringing were not impeccable, neither were they tortured and abused children themselves. For those who don't believe in the existence of evil, in the sense of one being born bad, the case was vexing. There was nothing to explain the horror and, well, evil in the two boys' actions other than small boys have cruel streaks and can sometimes do terrible things. Having a debate about the case with a paid up member of the tabloid lynch mob often felt like you were going to meet a battery of machine guns armed with a peashooter.

The crucial argument was this: given their age, did they deserve the chance at rehabilitation? They had expressed remorse for what they had done. Should they be released to live an adult life, once they had satisfied the authorities they no longer posed a risk to the public? The tabloids howled 'No!'. They had forfeited that right when they murdered a small boy. James Bulger was denied the right to live his life and so should they. It stripped away the almost quaint notion that prison might exist to rehabilitate and reform. It was clear, from the arguments put forward by the tabloids and many of their readers, that prison existed solely to punish. I have spoken to many people who feel life imprisonment was too good for them, that in less enlightened times, they would have been put to death and it would have served them right.

Admirably, I feel, the justice system took a different view. Venables and Thompson became the youngest convicted killers of the 20th century, ordered to serve a minimum of eight years. Under huge public pressure, this was upped several times, at one point to 15 years (by a Tory Home Secretary chasing votes) until the House of Lords intervened and eventually the original term stood. The boys served their time, were assessed and deemed not to be a threat to the public, and were released in 2001. Both were given new identities, for their own protection, despite more howls of outrage, so vociferous and vituperative that they proved the need for aliases. Released under their real names, the two men will have been torn limb from limb by the lynch mob. The men never truly had their freedom though. The tabloids were injuncted to prevent them reporting their new identities, but with their contacts within the police force, their ability to open chequebooks to gain access to protected data, they knew exactly where the two killers were, and started to wait and to watch. Watch and wait...

Last week news broke that Jon Venables had been returned to prison for violating the terms of his parole. The tabloids began to foam at the mouth. What had he done? The public should be told. James' mother was wheeled out to demand information, tabloid reporters cowering behind her as she did their dirty work. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, did as he he has done throughout his political career, vacillated. He ummed and ahhed and met with James' mum, and eventually decided not to release the details of what Venables had done to the press for fear of compromising his identity. During the days that he dithered, the newspapers had a field day. Venables had been caught looking at child pornography they chanted. The lynch mob leader, The Sun, rated it four out five on some perverted scale, as if they were connoisseurs (The Sun features naked women on page three. Some as young as 17. Wonder where that rates on the scale of child pornography?) They also revealed that he liked to watch violent films. No further questions, m'lud.

For those of who us who defended the right for Venables to be released, this was troubling. Though not because he had apparently re-offended. For a start, he doesn't seem to have been charged with a crime. If he is, then given the recent newspaper coverage, it will be impossible for him to get a fair trial. Why has the Home Secretary deemed it suitable to discuss this with the press in the absence of any charges? Why has he or the Attorney General not warned the newspapers they are getting dangerously close to revealing Venables new identity? Given the cavalier attitude the tabloids now employ towards previous valued ideas of not prejudicing a fair trial, and what can or can't be reported, I wouldn't be surprised if one day one of them says 'To Hell with it' and reports Venables new identity, knowing how toothless the Government has become in dealing with tabloid press excesses. Whereas in the original case, it felt like justice was following its own independent course, irrespective of what was being written and broadcast, it now feels like the tabloids are leading and justice follow in their slipstream. That once, feelings of revenge and the thirst for vengeance were channeled through the rule of law, but now the opposite seesm to be taking place. A cartoon by Steve Bell of The Guardian summarised these feelings far more eloquently than the even the most cogent article could.

Venables is back behind bars. Child pornography is terrible and hateful and if he's guilty he should be charged and punished. However, we don't know if that is what he's supposed to have done and there is the insinuation from some quarters that the material has been planted on him, to frame him, which unfortunately sounds quite plausible. Who knows how long he will remain in jail, and what will happen when he's released. One thing is for certain, the tabloids will be following him, dogging his every step. And from what I have learned, they have his co-killer Thompson firmly in their sights too. In the glare of the British press, the past is truly inescapable. Once more, fact trumps fiction.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan,

    WOW! what an amazing and horrible story!
    Arnie from the NBIEII thread

  2. Hi Dan,

    your post reminds me of something I have long tried to understand but can't - namely, why does every society judge child murderers more harshly than grown up ones, which one would assume should know better and hence be more reproachable as a result. The sentences are possibly the same or lower but the public reaction is ever so much more harsh, even though the act is just as horrific, the ultimate crime nothing will reverse no matter what the age of the culprit.


  3. Dan

    Interesting stuff. I well remember that case of the little boy being led by the hand to his death. It had a lot of coverage over here in the States.

    Hmmmm...death by curry. Sounds like a page turner for sure.


  4. Hi Dan,

    Interesting story, not a happy subject but I really enjoy the way you write.

    I agree with Jacquie, death by poisoned curry sounds like a page turner.


  5. Dan and Yrsa - This is another post that haunted me. I don't think anyone can forget the death of James Bulger. The picture of that little boy, seemingly so trusting, is neither more no less horrifying than the pictures of the two ten year old boys who committed the crimes. The boy on the right looks even younger than his years. What is so horrifying about their pictures is the knowledge of what they were capable of doing.

    For parents, the terror of the Bulger case is that he was a completely random victim. He went off with his killers because he hadn't yet learned to be afraid. What parent doesn't find it difficult to take a breath when they think of the fear that little boy knew before the mercy of death.

    About 20 years ago, in a town near mine, a 13 year-old boy was murdered by a boy a year older as they walked home from school through a field. The field was snow covered so Rod Matthews had Shaun Ouillette walk ahead of him so that only Shaun's footprints would show. Rod had a baseball bat and he hit Shaun with that bat until Shaun was dead. After the murder, Rod brought some of his friends to see the body, threatening to kill them if they told anyone. When he was arrested, Matthews was asked why he had killed Shaun. His response was, "I wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone." He said the he killed Shaun because he has just moved into the town and no on would care about him.

    After over 20 years, Rod Matthews is still in jail. He has been repeatedly denied parole because experts still believe that he is capable of killing again.

    It is us, the adults, who lose our innocence when children kill.

  6. namely, why does every society judge child murderers more harshly than grown up ones

    Yrsa, that was a brave sentiment that would earn you suspicious stares in America.

    Beth, I recently posted a passage by a crime writer who speculated that callousness about life may be due to our remoteness from death.

    Dan, I've eaten curry twice in the past week and a half, and I feel all right.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Yrsa, a fascinating point. I think the answer lies in Beth's response about we adults losing our innocence. We look back and see childhood as a time of endless innocence and wonder. That's the fantasy we create. So for things like murder and cruelty to intrude seems plain wrong, unnatural. When anyone who knows little kids, little boys especially, is aware how cruel and lacking in empathy they can be. In mild cases this can mean crushing ants. In extreme cases we have the cases we've mentioned.

    Not sure about the case you mention beth but the Bulger case caused much gnashing of teeth and wailing about how modern society was broken and we were going to hell in a hand cart. I think punishing the two small boys was an act of self-punishment in a way, and the fury at their release was partly anger at having to deal with it again, when most wanted it swept away.

    The simple fact is there have always been cases of children who kill. There was no golden age where this didn't happen, there is no form of discipline that can prevent these (thankfully) rare events, nor are video games are movies or books (why does no ever blame the books?) to blame. These things just happen and will, sadly, continue to happen, though in different circumstances and different. A society should be judged on how it responds, and in the case of the Bulger killers the verdict is pretty damning.

    Peter, thanks for the link. Fascinating. I eat curry most nights (my wife is Anglo-Indian). Tell you waht, next time we row, I'm hiring a taster...

  8. Tell you what: I signed up for Crimefest this week. Are you and Yrsa trusting enough to join me for dinner?
     Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  9. Dan - In the Matthews/Ouillette case the boys were older than the boys in the Bulger case if only by 3 or 4 years. No one expects kids in the early teens to be innocent which is unfortunate because most are far more so than they want adults to believe.

    Matthews said he wanted to kill so he could experience what "it felt like", a comment as callous as one could find. Later he claimed that he was driven to it by his parents marital problems, an excuse for all seasons. With reference to Tim's post today, Shaun Ouillette was not "cool". Rod Matthews thought he was cool and that showing the body to his friends would raise his cool ratio to even greater heights. In fact, Matthews planned the murder down to the smallest detail, hiding the bat in a part of the field that wasn't easily seen by anyone passing by. The body was found, frozen, three weeks later when one of the boys who saw the body told the police.

    Remorse has not factored in any of Rod Matthew's statements to the parole board which is why he is still in prison over 20 years later. The boys who killed James Bulger were still very young when they were released. Rod Matthews is now a man in his 30's with thinning hair. When pictures of Matthews appear after he appears before the parole board, the public is seeing an adult approaching middle age, not the 14 year old he was when the crime was committed. People who don't remember the actual case and who only half listen to the report on the parole hearing may believe that Matthews was an adult who killed a child. The boy Rod Matthews was died the day Shaun Ouillette did. The murder was brutal; maybe the world is better off because the child Matthews disappeared into the adult Matthews who inspires no pity and who has little hope of leaving prison in the near future.

  10. Wow. Being "across the pond," I was not familiar with this case before now. I have to say, I agree with Yrsa's statement. While disturbing that murder would be so attractive to someone so young, it is interesting that we are more horrified by those who haven't been fully formed, than by those who should know better. Well said, Yrsa.

    Great post, Dan. I sought out your post today (a few days late), Dan, because I just started your book, 'Blood Atonement,' on Friday and am about to finish it. I had never heard of blood atonement before reading this book, so the inclusion of Mormons caught me totally off guard! What a fantastic premise for a book! I look forward to picking up your other works.

    Of course, being a journalist myself, I started researching it right away. I found this article and thought I'd pass it on: You may have read it or you may be waaaaaaaaaaay over it by now, but it struck me as crazy and I didn't know who else to tell!


  11. Peter - sorry we took so long in replying to the dinner suggestion but we are trying to figure out what evening to pick - however you are definitely on.

    bye for now yrsa

  12. beth - thanks for the details. Sounds like the best place for him is behind bars. I think there's a world of difference between ten and 14.

    Michele, thanks for the link (and the kind words about the book) Yes, I'm a bit sated when it comes to facts about our Mormon pals, but that was an interesting piece.

  13. Beth, your facts about Rod Matthews are incorrect.First of all Rod has alot of remorse. Rod did not hide the bat, It was found in his house with his sisters 2 other bats. By the way if you read the report from the states examiner you will find how he talks about the two other bats he says, the 2 bats looked liked they had been wipped down. There are 2 other kids involved in this case Robbie petterson and john cash. No they have never been brought to trial . Oh Yea i forgot to mention that rod also was on Ritalin. And that john cash planned who to kill. At least rod confessed to the crime, but the 2 other kids have to hide what happend 24 years ago. It helps when your family is a townie and your grandfather has ties with the police. One day the truth will come out.

  14. With respect to the above comment by another "Anonymous" on 6/15/10...the experts, including James Fox whom you rely on so much (as I suspect I know who you are by your post), agree that Rod was not unduly influenced by Ritalin. Rod will not receive parole. Shaun's family will advocate strongly against it for years to come. And given the brutal nature of the crime and Rod's upbringing (for lack of a better term) in prison, the parole board would be hard-pressed to release him. Adjusting to life on the outside would be overwhelming for Rod. It's for the best, for everyone.

  15. It's interesting that experts have not felt that Rod was unduly influenced by Ritalin. Yet, for many of us who work in the Psychiatric field have seen numerous children who are taken off Ritalin because they either become more aggressive or complain themselves about feeling more angry on the medication. Understand this clearly, there is no tracking done on the numbers of children who have had their Ritalin discontinued due to an increase in aggressive behaviors and I doubt the pharmaceutical industry is interested in doing so either. Why is it so hard for people to accept that a medication that affects brain function can adversely affect some people in unintended ways. The saddest part of the Rod Matthews case is he knew there was something seriously wrong with him and he attempted to reach out and it was missed, badly missed. Did Ritalin cause him to kill, probably no. Was it a factor in disinhibiting violent impulses, probably yes. Until we demand tracking of these meds shoved down children's throats kids will keep suffering.