CHARLES GRAHAM - Young killers’ leeway

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WHEN the child killers of tot James Bulger were brought to justice there were many people, in the heat of that horrific case, who felt that the authorities should throw away the key.

In fact there are quite a few still subscribing to that view all these years later, not least because one of the murderers, Jon Venables, has gone on to show further criminal tendancies that have landed him back inside.

But from the appalling outset, I always thought that a crime committed by a nine and 10-year-old should not condemn them for life.

Had such a hideous offence been perpetrated by mature and sane adults, then that would have been another matter entirely.

Yes, these boys knew right from wrong at their age, but lacked perhaps the full emotional grasp of the terrible consequences their evil deeds were creating nonetheless.

I accept that this was vile, abnormal behaviour which cannot be excused by misguidedness and immaturity. But I felt that despite their denying a second chance to poor James they should eventually be given one themselves, so long as they were properly monitored through adulthood.

I am sure many will disagree that I should give murderers any leeway.

But on a parallel of much lesser scale, I am sure there aren’t many readers who don’t have regrets about certain (comparatively minor but still wrong) things they did as children for which they wouldn’t want to be judged on for the rest of their lives.

Or maybe they can admit to them because they are able add “well of course that was when I was a young and foolish child. I was a different person then.”

There can be a world of difference between the personality of a nine-year-old and that of someone three years his senior, never mind 12 years or more.

But the more mature in years someone is when they kill (so long as they do not have learning difficulties), the less clemency and tolerance the courts should afford them.

The four Wigan teenagers who were jailed for the sickening mob-attack slaying of Scholes takeaway owner Mi Gao Huang Chen in 2005, fall into a rather greyer area then.

They were still at school, but only just: being 15 and 16 years old when they punched, kicked and stamped on a man who had accused them of vandalising his shop.

The other day the Court of Appeal gave a third one of the quartet a small reprieve. Jason Hughes, who was armed with a spade when he participated in Mr Chen’s death, had been told he must serve a minimum nine years before being eligible for parole.

But at a hearing the other day a judge agreed that Hughes’s rehabilitation had progressed well, he had trained as a “wing listener,” as well as working in the prison servery and its gym.

Cutting his minimum term by eight months, Mr Justice Eder said: “It is plain that Hughes had a very troubled background prior to the commission of this murder” and added that after a difficult start to his imprisonment (“when he was still relatively young”) he had become much more trustworthy and responsible.

How the Chen family would react to such a concession we will perhaps never know because they do not live in this country anymore. I couldn’t second-guess whether they are apt to forgive those who atone, or whether they harbour a bitter hatred which will only be kept at bay by permanent incarceration.

In fact I am not entirely sure how I would feel if I were in their shoes. But justice in this country is not meted out by victims and their victims for a good reason: because they cannot look at the case dispassionately and in comparison with other crimes not committed against them or their loved ones.

And for that reason and for the reason that the teenagers who killed Mr Chen were still minors when their crimes are committed, I am inclined to back the judges for giving them a little credit.

No amount of time in jail will bring back Mr Chen. Justice of course must be served by a commensurate punishment and of course, just because these young men will be eligible for parole a few months earlier than they expected, doesn’t necessarily mean they will get it straight away.

Especially if they have not shown that they have grown up and shown contrition.