true crime

James and Silje were both slain by other children. But there's one key difference in their cases.

As five-year-old Silje Redergard walked out the door of her family home on October 15, 1994, she turned to her family: “I love you,” she said.

Those were words the little Norwegian girl normally only uttered at bedtime. Why she chose to say them that afternoon, as she ventured off to play in a nearby field, is something about which her mother still wonders.

“That was the last thing she said to us,” Beathe Redergard previously told The Guardian. “It’s like it was fated.”

A short time later, Silje was bashed, stoned, stripped naked and left to freeze to death near her Trondheim home. It was discovered the following day that her attackers were the same people she’d been building “snow castles” with just moments earlier – two locals boys, both aged six.

Why the pair turned on their playmate remains unknown; “We beat her till she stopped crying,” one of them told the police, simply.

For the age of those involved, for the nature of the crime, many comparisons been drawn over the years between the murder of Silje and that of James Bulger – a British toddler abducted from a Liverpool shopping centre, tortured and murdered on 12 February, 1993, by 10-year-old Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.

But as a British television documentary this week noted, for all the disturbing similarities between the two cases, there was a striking difference: the public response.

The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done? delved into why this divergence occurred, why the hysteria around the UK case was largely avoided in the wake of Silja’s death.


Part of it, at least, was pinned on the approach of the press.

james bulger norway
Killed 20 months apart, James Bulger and Silje Redergard. Images: Channel 4.

While the names Thompson and Venables were splashed across British newspapers under headlines that declared them to be "evil", “urchins”, "freaks of nature", and while their now-infamous mugshots remain a perversely iconic part of British crime history, the public still don't know who killed Silje Redergard.


The attacker’s names have never been reported by Norwegian media, nor their images published.

As Harry Tiller, a journalist who covered the story for Tronheim’s biggest-selling newspaper, Adresseavisen, told the documentary, “I don’t think we had any choice. They were six-year-old boys. They had to go to kindergarten, they had to go to school.”

Which they did, just two weeks after the murder.

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The boys’ liberty was ensured by Norwegian law, which stipulates that the age of criminal responsibility is 15. This meant that rather than being charged for taking Silja’s life, they were monitored by child protection services until the age of 18.

Trond Andreassen, a child psychologist who oversaw the welfare of the boys, explained to the Channel 4 program that this approach to juvenile justice is based on biology and psychology.

“The brain is restructured during puberty and it's only then that the frontal lobes start to function in an adult way,” he said.

"So even though children can say things that indicate they understand what is right and wrong, they don't have the brain or psychology to take full responsibility for [the consequences of] their actions… That’s a fact.”


Even Beathe Redergard, who had her little girl so violently taken from her, who at first wanted to “throttle” the boys who had done so, ultimately accepted this.

"I forgive the ones who killed my daughter," she the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet after Silja’s death. "It is not possible to hate small children… They can't understand the consequences of what they have done."

The mugshots seen around the world, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Images: Getty.

While this principle is reflected in the law of most European countries, in the UK (and in Australia) the age of criminal responsibility begins at 10 - that’s despite a 2012 ruling by the United Nations Committee on Rights of the Child that “a minimum age of criminal responsibility below the age of 12 years is considered by the committee not to be internationally acceptable”.


And so, Thompson and Venables were charged with murder, tried, convicted and sentenced to a minimum of eight years in prison for their crime. The public, spurned on by the press, shouted, marched and even rioted for harsher punishment; the then-Home Secretary Michael Howard even altered their sentence to 15 years, an intervention that was later deemed unlawful and overruled.

Having been released in June 2001 after serving their minimum term, both men now live under new identities. While no one has heard of the former, Venables was this week sentenced to a second stint in prison for child pornography offences - his first in 2010 carried two years, while Wednesday’s ruling will see him jailed for a minimum of three years and four months.

James Bulger’s parents were in court for the sentencing, hopeful - once again - the person who took their son’s life would be denied the chance to live his on the outside.

As the murdered boy's mother, Denise Fergus, wrote in her book earlier this year, “Any decent person who makes a mistake should be given the chance to make amends. But that doesn’t apply to Venables and Thompson: they aren’t decent people.”