Too young to be criminal

Updated: 2013-12-18 08:04

By He Na in Beijing and Zhang Chunyan in London (China Daily)

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The picture overseas

 The most notorious case in UK

In 1993, 2-year-old James Patrick Bulger from Merseyside, England, was murdered on Feb 12.

The toddler was abducted, tortured and murdered by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. His mutilated body was found on a railway line in Liverpool, two days after his death.

Thompson and Venables were charged with abduction and murder. At that time in the UK, children aged 10 to 14 could only be tried for criminal behavior if the prosecution could prove that offenders understood that their actions were wrong, a rebuttal of the concept of doli incapax, or the incapability of criminal intent, under which it was presumed that children younger than 10 could not be held responsible for their actions.

In November 1993, Thompson and Venables were found guilty, becoming the youngest people to be convicted of murder in modern English history.

In 1994, then Home Secretary Michael Howard increased the boys' minimum sentences from eight years to 15. Howard's decision came amid publication of an anti-release petition organized by the Bulger family that contained 278,000 signatures. In 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that putting children on trial in such an environment was unfair, and reinstated the original minimum sentences.

In June 2001, Venables and Thompson were released on lifetime licenses, which imposed strict conditions on their movements.

In 2010, Venables was returned to prison for violating the terms of his release license.

- Zhang Chunyan

Closed circuit footage of Li attacking Xinyuan has gone viral on the Internet worldwide, raising concerns about China's image abroad. Some foreign observers have even compared Li with foreign teenagers who became notorious after killing other children.

In 1993, the UK was shocked by the murder of 2-year-old James Bulger, but even more appalled by the ages of his killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both 10. They were sentenced to eight years in prison.

"I think the only thing we can do is either lower the age of criminal responsibility or do away with it altogether, which is something I would favor. If you murder someone and plead insanity as a defense, it's up to the court to decide whether or not you knew what you were doing, because in cases such as this, English law is guided by rules going back about 400 years," said James Quarmby, a lawyer at the London-based international law firm Stephenson Harwood.

There's a huge difference between a child who attacks someone and pushes him off a balcony, and one who breaks a window. That alone should prompt a change in the law, he said, adding that the idea that all children are innocent angels and should be protected at all times is wrong.

"The court will decide whether or not the person can be tried. For juveniles, we should look at the nature of the child to see whether the act was preplanned or premediated," he said.

"The reason the Bulger case still has such resonance in the UK after 20 years is that it presented people involved in child protection with a dilemma, because it was a case of children inflicting violence on other children. The law should be changed and the idea that there should be a cutoff point is wrong. The age at which innocence ends is probably falling," he added.

Correction and education

In 2006, a 13-year-old boy from Heilongjiang Province raped a 14-year-old girl, but was never apprehended or punished. However, enraged that the girl's family had reported his crime, he harbored a grudge and later murdered the girl's mother.

"No punishment doesn't mean no intervention. China doesn't have any laws specifically for minors under 14. I am calling for a law to be drawn up, a Code of Behavior for Minors that would apply to children older than 7. Seeking to help, but not punish, the law would focus on intervention and the correction of behavior," said Li Meijin.

Zong Chunshan, director of the Beijing Legal and Psychological Counseling Service Center for Juveniles, said physical and mental immaturity mean the motives behind juvenile crime are often different from those that drive adults. Therefore, the correction and education of minors should be based on psychology, not punishment.

"On the contrary, excessive punishment will plant the seeds of revenge in their hearts and bring more harm to society. It's abnormal for a girl this young to commit such a cruel crime. She must have suffered a similar violent attack in the past. The girl should receive psychosocial counseling immediately and it should be carried out over the long term via observations, tests and intervention measures. The girl's father said his daughter was extremely calm after the case, which could indicate a highly developed antisocial personality disorder," Zong said.

"Chinese parents generally pay more attention to their children's material needs than their spiritual development. This case could teach all parents a lesson."

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Wang Mingjie contributed to this story.

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