Thursday, 5 August 2010

How the police kept the Venables indecent images trial secret

The trial and convictions of the 10 year olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the murder of 2 year olds James Bulger in 1993 are etched on the minds of all of us who were around at the time. Jon Venables was released from prison on life licence in 2001. It has now come to light that he has committed serious offences on licence, including download indecent images of children and worse still posing under a female alias on the internet willing to trade her daughter for abuse in return for indecent images, to which charges he in the end pleaded guilty and now remains back in prison. Apparently, as we are now told, the offences only came to light because Venables himself contacted his probation officer fearing that his identity had been discovered and was in fear of attack. His probation officer said he would come round to help him move to a safe house and told him to gather his things. When the officer came round he found Venables trying to destroy the hard drive on his computer with a tin opener.

The Venables case raises all kinds of social and legal questions but I only want to concentrate on one in this post. The police faced a dilemma at the start of the investigation, namely how could they possibly resist a challenge by Venables' lawyers that he could not face a fair jury trial once the likely risk had materialised of his true identity being revealed.

There were two problems. The first was that criminal process starts in the local magistrates court, even though more serious cases such as that of Venables are later transfered up ('committed') to the Crown Court. This meant that far more people around: in magistrates courts there is constant traffic in and out of cases, as I recall from my days as a criminal lawyer, and there could easily be 30 people in one court room alone, either involved in a case, waiting for their case to come or departing at any one time, all of whom would have varying degrees of local knowledge. The local press hound is often there looking out for interesting leads. The odds of identification of Venables at that point was very high, thus scuppering the prospects of a fair Crown Court trial later.

Leading counsel hit on a rare procedure to get round this, one which I have never heard of it (but then that is why leading counsel is well,, leading). This is called a 'voluntary indictment' and means that a defendant can be brought straight before the Crown Court rather than through normal committal proceedings, on the authority of a High Court judge. Venables' lawyers did not object to use of this procedure as they were as concerned for Venables' safety as the prosecution were to bring him to trial.

The second problem was that whilst a worldwide anonymity order had been granted to protect Venables and Thompson upon their release in 2001 which prevented any court reporting that could identify them, this did not prevent reporting of proceedings in the Crown Court (presumably it was not considered at the time that they would commit further crimes and as a result needed further identity protection). The best that could be done was to issue to the media a further gagging order but this has to say that Venables had been charged, but no details given of the offences. Hence the furore of speculation in the media at the time, who were already aware that something was afoot.

It was still possible that Venables could be tried under an assumed name but there remained a grave risk of the true link being made by the jury between the man being tried for child pornography offences and Venables the child killer. In the event however Venables never appeared in court. On July 23rd, seen only on a laptop by the judge, he pleaded guilty to all offences and was sentenced to two years imprisonment.