The children who kill – and how they were dealt with

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who were convicted in 1993, both aged 11, for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who were convicted in 1993, both aged 11, for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger - PA

It is almost impossible to believe that children could be capable of committing such a heinous crime. Yet this week, a jury at Nottingham Crown Court found two 12-year-old boys guilty of murdering 19-year-old Shawn Seesahai with a machete in a park in Wolverhampton. The killers, who were not known to Seesahai, cannot be named because of their age.

In most cases, courts protect the anonymity of child killers in order to give them a better chance of rebuilding their lives once their sentences have been served. In some cases, however, the judge waives their right to anonymity if it is determined to be in the public interest.

Seesahai’s murder is an especially chilling case – not only because, as prosecutors said, the victim was “utterly defenceless” and had “done nothing to offend the two boys”, but because of the murderers’ age.

Murder victim Shawn Seesahai
Murder victim Shawn Seesahai - PA

Their conviction makes them the youngest people in the UK to be convicted of a knife crime murder and the youngest killers to be convicted since Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were detained over the torture and murder of James Bulger in 1993.

The two boys now join the grim ranks of Britain’s underage killers – who are they, and how were they brought to justice?

The Bulger killers

Surveillance camera footage shows the abduction of two-year-old James Bulger from a Liverpool shopping centre on February 12 1993
Surveillance camera footage shows the abduction of two-year-old James Bulger from a Liverpool shopping centre on February 12 1993 - Getty Images

The murder of James Bulger remains perhaps the most disturbing crime committed by children in British history. In a case of “unparalleled evil and barbarity”, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, then 11 years old, were found guilty of the abduction and murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993.

The boys – born 10 days apart in August 1982, in Liverpool – had snatched the toddler during a visit to the Strand shopping centre, in Bootle, Merseyside, and subjected him to a prolonged and torturous assault before killing him and leaving his body on a railway line.

After three weeks in court, Venables and Thompson were convicted of murder and were sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure (the normal substitute sentence for life imprisonment when the offender is a juvenile). They became the youngest murderers to be convicted in Britain in 250 years. But in 1999, the European Commission on Human Rights found that Thompson and Venables were denied a fair trial and fair sentencing because the trial was public and subject to intense press scrutiny. This conclusion was echoed by the European Court of Human Rights later that year.

There are lingering questions about whether justice was ever truly served. In 2001, the pair won an unprecedented court order granted by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss which granted them lifelong anonymity. Later that year they were released with new identities after serving eight years. Thompson has stayed out of prison since, but Venables was recalled in 2010 after he was found to have child abuse images on his computer. He was released in 2013 with a second new identity but recalled in 2017 for the same offence. His most recent parole bid in December 2023 was denied.

Mary Bell

In 1968, 11-year-old Bell was convicted of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility after killing two preschool-age boys, making her Britain’s youngest female killer. Her victims were four-year-old Martin Brown and three-year-old Brian Howe, both of whom she strangled to death and abandoned in Scotswood, Newcastle. The court was told she was motivated “solely [by] the pleasure and excitement of killing”.

Bell was handed a sentence of indefinite detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure – for manslaughter, rather than murder, as she was diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder. She served just under 12 years in custody, some of them in the same specialist secure unit that later held Jon Venables.

She was released on licence with a new identity in 1980, aged 23. In 2003, she won a High Court battle and was granted lifelong anonymity for her and her only daughter, born in 1984.

It was a controversial case, especially given Bell received a substantial payment for collaborating with the journalist Gitta Sereny on a book about her life in 1998. Bell spoke of her intensely troubled childhood. She was the daughter of a prostitute who often gave her sleeping pills and had been sexually abused. In the years since she was freed, Bell has assumed three identities and relocated at least five times after being identified by the tabloid press.

Sharon Carr 

Sharon Carr
Sharon Carr - Eddie Mulholland

The youngest girl to be convicted of murder in Britain is Sharon Carr, who was just 12 years old when she stabbed Katie Rackliff, an 18-year-old hairdresser, in 1992. Rackliff was on the way home from a nightclub in Camberley, Surrey, when she was fatally stabbed by Carr a total of 29 times.

Carr was not caught until two years later, when she attacked a 13-year-old fellow pupil with a knife. While in custody for this attack, she bragged about Rackliff’s murder to friends and family and wrote about it in disturbing diary entries.

She was sentenced to indefinite detainment at Her Majesty’s pleasure with a minimum term of 14 years. In her sentencing, the judge declared she was “an extremely dangerous young woman”. Carr was transferred to Broadmoor Hospital in 1998. She has remained there ever since.

Daniel Bartlam

Daniel Bartlam was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his mother Jacqui
Daniel Bartlam was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his mother Jacqui

In 2011,14-year-old Bartlam killed his mother Jacqui in a fevered attack with a claw hammer at the family home in Nottingham. The schoolboy, who had spoken of hearing voices but was found to have no mental health issues, had become obsessed with Coronation Street killer John Stape and carried out a “chilling” copycat murder. Afterwards, he doused his mother’s body in petrol and set fire to it to destroy the evidence. Her body was identified from her dental records. In court, Judge Julian Flaux said it seemed like the teenager wanted to “get away with the perfect murder”.

Police recovered disturbing drawings and notebooks containing threats against Jacqui and other family members in Bartlam’s bedroom and Google searches for “how to get away with murder” and “people who got away with murder in shows” on his computer. He was convicted of murder in April 2012 and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 16 years. He will not be eligible for parole until 2027.

Angela Wrightson’s killers

Wrightson, a vulnerable adult with a history of alcoholism, was 39 when she was brutally murdered by two young girls, then aged 13 and 14, in 2014. The pair took a selfie with Wrightson and posted it on Snapchat midway through a torturous assault that lasted several hours. Wrightson’s body was discovered by her landlord the next day. The two girls were arrested soon after one of them spoke to a youth worker and expressed an interest in Wrightson’s case and in prison sentences for murder.

Theirs was a complicated trial: an initial attempt was suspended by Justice Henry Globe when information about the defendants was circulated on social media. Newspapers and media platforms were ordered to remove comments about the trial from articles and social media posts. The Telegraph, the BBC and Sky News were among the news organisations to challenge these reporting restrictions. A retrial took place in 2016 – both girls were found guilty of murder and given life sentences with minimum terms of 15 years.

Ultimately, the pair were granted lifelong anonymity in 2021 on the basis that they are “extremely psychologically vulnerable” and would be at “a very significant risk” of being attacked if their identities were revealed.

James Watson

James Watson, left, was 13 when he murdered six-year-old Rikki Neave in 1994 – and was sentenced in 2022
James Watson, left, was 13 when he murdered six-year-old Rikki Neave in 1994 – and was sentenced in 2022 - SWNS | PA

Watson murdered six-year-old Rikki Neave in Peterborough in 1994 aged 13 but was not caught and convicted until he was a middle-aged man. Watson strangled Rikki with the zip of his coat and left his naked body in the woodland by the A15, where it was discovered the following day. Initially, his mother Ruth Neave – a drug addict who was abusive towards her children – was the prime suspect. She was tried and acquitted of his murder, but jailed for cruelty against Rikki and two of his three sisters.

At the time of the murder, Watson lived in a local children’s home. He had already been accused of sexually assaulting a five-year-old boy. As the last person to have been seen with Rikki, he was interviewed by police, but his fictitious accounts of that day went unchallenged for two decades and the murder remained unsolved, becoming one of Britain’s most notorious cold cases. On the 20th anniversary of Rikki’s death, new DNA evidence was discovered linking Watson to the case. He was bailed and fled to Portugal but was extradited back to the UK to face justice. In April 2022, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 years.