James Bulger murder: Shelagh Fogarty remembers the trial

Image caption James Bulger was weeks away from his third birthday

On the 20 year anniversary of the murder of James Bulger, BBC Radio 5 Live's Shelagh Fogarty recalls the trial of his young killers.

I barely need to refer to my notes to remember in great detail the events that would dominate British news for years.

How could two small boys savage and leave a toddler for dead? Could they have planned to do it in advance? Who were their parents? Were they to blame?

A torrent of questions erupted from the moment the grim news came out that James Bulger's body had been found on a railway line in Liverpool and the last people seen with him were two ten-year-olds, captured on grainy CCTV footage.

The shock in the city was plain to see, but it wasn't just in Liverpool that people stared at the CCTV pictures of the boy holding James' hand, while another led the way to the exit of the shopping centre where a frantic Denise Bulger would have been desperately looking for her child.

I wonder how many parents looked at their sons of a similar age that week, sure in the knowledge their own children could never be so wicked, but asked themselves anyway "what would I do if?"

Full gaze

Ann Thompson and Susan and Neil Venables didn't need to imagine. It was their sons picked up by detectives.

One police officer described how Jon Venables was so small, his legs were swinging in the air as he sat in the custody office.

At Preston Crown Court a few months later, I was one of a handful of journalists given full access to the small courtroom for the trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both now 11-years-old.

Image caption Jon Venables and Robert Thompson behaved very differently in court

It was to be an adult trial, both boys appearing every day in the full gaze of whoever was in that room, but neither giving evidence directly to the court.

Their parents entered the courtroom; The Venables arrived together, Ann Thompson came with supporters but no sign of Robert's father

Their seats were just below the raised dock where their sons would sit for the next three weeks, listening to a prosecution which aimed to prove not only that they killed James Bulger, but that they planned to, and that when they did they knew it to be wrong.

Counsel for the prosecution, Richard Henriques QC, made it clear all three elements needed to be proved for a murder conviction.

To do that he put on the witness stand all those people who had seen the three boys on the route from the shopping centre to the railway line.

The most agonising thing about the whole case was that so many people had stopped them and questioned them.

Good people asked the boys if they were lost or urged them to take "their baby brother" home as he cried for his mummy. One woman asked how James had injured his forehead. "He fell over," was the response.

'Tell his mum I'm sorry?'

The most startling moment of the trial came when, in lieu of giving evidence in person, the boys' taped interviews with police - recorded just after their arrest - were played in court.

Thompson was inscrutable in the dock as we heard his voice for the first time. Such a childish voice. The only sign he was discomforted by hearing it was a near constant pulling of his tongue in his hands.

Venables was a different creature. His response couldn't have been more different as he sank into the oversized blazer he was wearing.

The questioning was calm, steady, even playful at the beginning to try to get a sense the two boys really did know the difference between right and wrong. They did.

Thompson admitted nothing. Venables on the other hand was becoming increasingly agitated in the police interviews.

A sudden pause in the tapes and one of the officers appeared in person to describe how he asked Neil and Susan Venables to leave the room because he thought Jon wanted to tell him something. Susan Venables agreed but on condition that she saw her son first.

It was on his way back to the interview room when Venables finally admitted it: "We did it. Will you tell his mum I'm sorry?"

The atmosphere in the courtroom was oppressive as the tension of a month was about to break.

The guilty verdicts came quickly - within five hours.

The end of the court case was not the end of course. Denise Bulger believes her son's murderers - men now - should be in prison for ever.

James Bulger would now be weeks away from his 23rd birthday.

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