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Responsible children: When kids kill

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The BBC feature film titled ‘Responsible Child’ is inspired by the true life and disturbing case of a 13 year old boy convicted for killing an adult male in 2013 in north London. The teenager, who still cannot be named publicly, was one of the youngest murderers ever to appear at the Old Bailey.

A gang member from the age of 10, the boy was initially arrested at school by the police following a text he sent friends instructing them to deny his presence at the scene of the crime. Focusing on the actual judicial process when the boy faced an adult court, the factually based drama highlights how young people are dealt with and treated within a system designed to put adults on trial for serious crimes such as murder and rape. Despite being mercifully rare, murders by children still have the power to shock the nation and can retain notoriety even decades after the events have happened. 400 children have been convicted of murder in the UK over two decades and the varying circumstances of the crimes, often taking into consideration the age of the child, usually results in a lengthy period of incarceration in a specialist unit before transference to an adult prison. The real-life teenage killer at the centre of the BBC movie was sentenced to 11 years in 2015 for what police described as a ‘trivial incident’ that erupted into a few seconds of ferocious and fatal violence. The youth, who had previous run-ins with the police due to gang-related incidents, stabbed to death 53-year-old Christopher ‘Jack’ Barry in Edmonton Green, North London on a chance meeting.

‘What you saying now, what you saying now?’

During what was later described as an altercation involving ‘pushing and shoving’ the victim, accompanied by his girlfriend, tried to stop a gang of youths from gaining access to his block of flats. The convicted teenager followed Mr Barry into the lift where he produced a knife and after shouting ‘What you saying now, what you saying now?’ stabbed the middle-aged Irishman twice in the chest. At first not realising he had been seriously injured through his wax jacket, Mr Barry later collapsed in a pool of blood and died from cardiac arrest. His girlfriend Sabrina Finn who had known Barry for four years witnessed the brutal attack and revealed in a victim statement that the incident had ruined her life and that she was now ‘broken-hearted’ In the movie, released in 2019 the sombre atmosphere on the set filming some of the court scenes brought home the shocking reality of depicting someone so young responsible for the senseless and brutal murder of an innocent stranger. Filming scenes in Hammersmith’s old and disused courtroom, the young actor playing the convicted killer was a reminder to cast and crew that a child full of naivety about the world was facing years of incarceration and an uncertain future as an adult. Barely able to grasp the complexities of an adult court such as the Old Bailey, Mr Barry’s real-life schoolboy killer has now joined an infamous gallery of murderers under the age of 18. Twenty-six years have passed since the headline-grabbing Bulger murder case when ten-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson lured two-year-old James Bulger to his death by abducting him from a Merseyside shopping centre as his mother was temporarily distracted. The boys sexually assaulted the toddler before beating him to death and leaving his body on a railway line. The case became a major worldwide talking point analysing the tragic and shocking crime as potentially linked to influential factors such as the young killers’ dysfunctional upbringing, inadequate education, poverty, pornography and ‘video nasties’ such as the horror movies starring demonic doll ‘Chucky’ that may have contributed in some way to the sociopathic behaviour of two ten-year-olds. Unlike many brutal murders that have occurred over the decades, the senseless and cruel killing of little James Bulger has lost none of its potency to shock, upset and disturb due to the young age of both the victim and the boys who took his life. Despite being children themselves, the convicted duo were depicted as ‘monsters’ and the personification of ‘evil’ by the mainstream press attracting a volcanic level of blood-baying hatred by the public usually reserved for adults found guilty of infanticide. As can be seen in archive news footage when Venables and Thompson are transported by security vehicles, adult protestors can be heard screaming for the boys, not even then 11 years of age, to be hanged. Released from prison with new identities each in 2001, Venables was re-admitted to prison in 2010 after having been caught possessing child pornography. He was released in 2013.

The controversy surrounding the Bulger case, the reaction from the press and the public brought about changes about how minors should be dealt with by the judicial system when accused of serious crimes. Britain has been criticised in the past for not modernising its approach to young offenders under 14, where countries such as Norway deal with them through the child protection and welfare system. Despite such cases as the Bulger abduction sparking fervent debate, the age of criminal responsibility has remained in England and Wales at ten years of age since 1968 – one of the lowest in Europe. Still today the tragic and controversial death of James Bulger is highly pertinent to the discussions around the age of criminal responsibility and seen to be the reason why occasional calls for raising the age in which a child can be prosecuted have been rejected. In 1968 the face of a beautiful, angelic-looking 11-year-old girl was seen on the front page of newspapers across the country accompanied with the shocking revelations that she was a double murderer of two children younger than herself. Mary Bell was the child of a single mother earning her living through prostitution and living in impoverished circumstances in Tyneside. Bell’s incomprehensible crimes, strangling two young children under the age of five that she knew as neighbours in the Scotswood area of Newcastle Upon Tyne was up to this date the most shocking case of a child being found guilty of murder. The day before Bell’s 11th birthday she strangled four-year-old Martin Brown while playing with him in a derelict house. Two months later she killed three-year-old Brian Howe on a piece of wasteland close to the scene of her first heinous crime. Equally unsettling were the reported revelations that Bell had approached one of the victim’s parents and pretended to help look for the missing child, knowing all the time where she had killed and left him. Even when a knee-jerk press played on accusations of Bell being intrinsically ‘evil’ due to consciously tormenting her victims’ parents, her own pitiful background revealing physical and sexual abuse, as well as being drugged with sleeping pills by her mother, went some way to mitigate the court’s decisions about Bell’s punishment and how she was to be rehabilitated.

In December 1968 Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She was released from detention in 1980 at the age of 23 and went on to live a functional life, giving birth to a daughter and eventually becoming a grandmother under the protection of anonymity that has to-date lasted fifty years.

The UK government bases its criminal responsibility law on an assumption that ten-year-old children know the difference between right and wrong. Clearly, in the case of a child such as Bell, where her disturbing and chaotic upbringing within a violent and sexually corruptive environment may have influenced her pathological behaviour, other factors affecting a young person’s mental state are taken into account such as their ability or inability to understand empathy and make moral decisions. Critics of the present criminal system in the UK dealing with young offenders claim that that subjecting child to criminal justice system simply stigmatises and labels the child making it harder for them to escape their past and lead ‘good’ lives. But with the current climate of weekly reports of knife crime committed by young people under the age of 18, often associated with gang culture, the debate about how to treat young offenders of murder, attempted murder and violence continues as does the contentious issue about the legal age of responsibility. As in the case of the 13-year-old boy who murdered Christopher Barry his age and the fact that he pleaded guilty to the crime played a significant part in reducing his sentence from a potential 25 years. His starting point for the minimum term was reduced on the basis he was under 14 and then increased because of the aggravating factors of the murder where he had been carrying a knife and followed his victim with the intention of inflicting injuries. Some may argue that during the 2015 trial Judge Kramer’s decision to not lift reporting restrictions, after taking into account ‘a complicated legal argument’, the 13 year old killer, now 19, should have been named considering James Bulger’s known murderers who were only ten years of age at the time of the crime were both identified to the public. Without doubt, cases involving child killers is hugely complex in terms of legal aspects and equally complex, decisions based on how best to try and rehabilitate what are often damaged, young people.