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Bronson Blessington's crimes shocked a nation, but should a child be locked up for life?

Janine Balding was a lively young woman with big plans for a bright future.

The 20-year-old bank clerk had moved from Wagga Wagga to Sydney, was engaged and had bought a home on the NSW Central Coast with her fiancé.

Soon, they planned to start a family.

But on 8 September, 1988, her future plans were cruelly stolen, along with her life.

That evening, as Janine approached her car at Sutherland Railway Station in Sydney’s south, 14-year-old Bronson Blessington (the youngest of the five youths convicted in relation to the cold-blooded murder) forced her into her vehicle at knife-point.

Matthew Elliot, 16, raped Janine while 15-year-old Wayne Wilmot drove the car and Carol Ann Arrow, also 15, sat in the front seat.

Blessington recently told Fairfax Media’s Good Weekend: “Elliot said, ‘Bronson, have a go’. So I got out and raped her, too.”

After panicking that the woman would identify them, Elliot and Blessington pushed their victim into a paddock, intending to tie her up and leave her there.

“Our feet started sinking in the mud. We saw there was a dam and Matthew [Elliott] said, ‘Let’s drown her’,” Blessington recalls.

As the 14-year-old held the frightened woman under the water, his accomplice punched her in the stomach “so she would swallow water and die quickly”.

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Hear Mia, Kate and Monique discuss Bronson Blessington on Mamamia OutLoud:

“There was no rage or anything inside me. It was like I was outside myself. I just felt nothing,” he said.

They stole her jewellery and withdrew money from her ATM card, before boasting of the murder in Sydney’s Hyde Park to two girls.

Days later, Blessington and Elliot told police they knew Janine – who had been reported missing – was raped and murdered, but were not involved in the crimes, and led police to her partly submerged body.

“I remember, when they took me to the crime scene, all I could think was, ‘I can’t believe this is a dead body’,” Blessington said.

“Why was that all I could think about? I mean, I had killed her. But all I could think about was, ‘So this is what a dead body looks like’.”

It was a crime so brutal and shocking that a judge sentenced the teen to life imprisonment, urging that he never be released.

Blessington was the youngest in the state to ever face incarceration for the term of his natural life.

In sentencing, Justice Peter Newman said:

To sentence people so young to a long term of imprisonment is of course a heavy task. However, the facts surrounding the commission of these crimes are so barbaric that I believe I have no alternative other than to impose upon [these] young prisoners, even despite their age, a life sentence. So grave is the nature of this case that I recommend that none of the prisoners in the matter should ever be released.”

But, given the law at the time entitled a prisoner given a life sentence to have their sentence assessed and potentially downgraded after eight years, the judge’s strong recommendation was legally unenforceable.

That was until the NSW Parliament passed retrospective legislation (in 1997, 2001 and 2005) ensuring Blessington and other “animals” remained behind bars for good for the protection of the community.

The changes mean that Blessington (who is now only eligible for release if he is on the verge of death or profoundly incapacitated) is subjected to a penalty that did not exist at the time he committed his horrific crimes.

And, according to a recent United Nations ruling, it’s a state of affairs that breaks international treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In sentencing, the judge pointed out that Blessington had only a “trivial” criminal record – one offence of stealing sunglasses – and good prospects for rehabilitation, Fairfax reports.

As a youngster, the illiterate Blessington embarked on a slippery slope of truancy, fighting and sniffing petrol that led to him being placed in state care.

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There, he met other wayward youth with whom he set about creating mischief. It was only weeks after he stole sunglasses from a parked car, earning himself his first recorded offence, that Janine was raped and murdered in a twisted series of events that he denies was pre-planned.

Despite that a psychiatrist determined Blessington, at age 13, had the mental age of a nine-year-old, and that a court-appointed psychiatrist found his conduct disorder fit the criteria for a defence of diminished responsibility, none was put forward at trial.

His former lawyer, Kevin Coorey, told Fairfax he could not argue the defence because Blessington was pleading not guilty – “it’s a contradiction,” the lawyer explained.

In lying about his role in the crime and denying himself the potential defence, the teenager effectively forfeited a sentence of less than 10 years’ jail, and inadvertently landed himself a life term.

These days, Blessington – now in his 28th year of custody – speaks of his endless remorse at not having walked away from the events that defined his entire life, and abruptly ended Janine Balding’s.

“I’m ashamed, really ashamed, about what I did,” he said.

“I pray every night for the Baldings. I’ve shed so many tears; the pain and suffering I’ve put them through… I’m a new person, for sure.”

His final legal appeal has been exhausted and his only hope of release is the NSW governor granting him clemency.

Andy Thomas, a former prison chaplain at the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, told Fairfax Blessington’s punishment was “worse than a death sentence”.

“There are many men who have committed heinous crimes and after 20 years they are released if they display good behaviour,” he said.

“Bronson was just a boy at the time.”

Blessington, who dreams of running a ministry and help young people if he is ever released, says regretfully his family members tend to live to an old age.

“I just could not do another 40, 50 years inside,” he said.

“I’d be better off if they hanged me.”

His appeal for clemency is currently being considered.

Do you think he should be released?

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