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Witnesses Called in Trial Of Boys for Toddler's Killing

By Eugene Robinson
The Washington Post

PRESTON, England

Nothing about the two 11-year-olds even hints at the crime they are accused of committing. Both are small for their age, baby-faced, rosy-cheeked, as round and plump as the plaster cherubs that look down on the courtroom from the ornate ceiling above.

But prosecutors charge that on Feb. 12, the two boys, who are designated "A" and "B" in court to protect their identities, lured 2-year-old James Bulger from a shopping center near Liverpool while his mother's back was turned.

They allegedly marched the crying toddler more than two miles through the streets, kicking and bruising him along the way, until they reached a railroad yard. There, they pelted him with bricks, stones and an iron bar until he lay motionless, the prosecution contends, and then placed his body across the tracks to be dismembered by a train.

In a trial that has focused the nation's attention on this northern industrial city, the boys have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder. Prosecutors say they will introduce confessions from both boys, in which each blames the other. They are the youngest defendants to be tried for murder in England in this century.

The proceedings involve a tragic but compelling tale. They also raise difficult questions about the nature of criminal responsibility, about the age at which boys cease to be boys. Virtually all societies associate childhood with innocence, but these children are accused of almost unspeakable evil.

Thursday, the boys sat quietly with their burly social workers while prosecutor Richard Henriques called his witnesses, defense lawyers conducted their cross-examinations and Justice Michael Morland made interjections to clarify key points. At times, the boys seemed to follow the testimony. But there were also stretches when the niceties of British legal procedure seemed to elude them, and they gazed instead around the courtroom.

Neither showed an emotional response to anything that was said, although "B" occasionally hung his head, as if from weariness.

The Bulger slaying was unusual in that the toddler's progress toward his death was amply witnessed. Security cameras in the shopping center in Bootle, a Liverpool suburb, tape-recorded the 2-year-old being led away by two older boys. Another security camera on a nearby street recorded them as they passed. At least 27 people noticed the trio as they made their way across town that Friday afternoon -- two young boys with a younger boy between them, crying.

The trial, expected to last more than two weeks, was moved here because feelings were running so high against the boys in the Liverpool area that authorities feared they could not get a fair trial and that angry crowds would turn up outside the courthouse each day.

On Monday, Henriques used his opening argument to outline his case in gruesome detail. He said the boys, who had a history of truancy but not of trouble with the law, had spent the afternoon of Feb. 12 at the shopping center looking for fun, at one point cruelly teasing an elderly woman, at another trying to lead a second youngster from his mother's side but failing.

James Bulger's mother, Denise, who had been shopping, went into a butcher's shop, thinking James was at her side. Instead, he had wandered off, and the two boys allegedly spotted him and led him away.

"I was near the door but James was gone. I started asking if anybody had seen him and I was panicking," Denise Bulger said in a statement read in court Wednesday.

According to Henriques, the many people who saw the boys leading James through the city assumed they were his older brothers.

Some of those witnesses testified Thursday. A delivery man said he gazed out his window at a group of pretty girls and noticed the two boys with a bawling youngster who was being taken along against his will. A woman who was shopping with friends noticed the group, too, she said. Another woman said she saw the baby crying and heard the older boys discussing which way to go.

Some of the witnesses identified the defendants as the boys they had seen that day, but others failed to recognize them from photographs or police lineups. The prosecution asserts it will produce physical evidence, including bloodstains, that links the defendants to the crime.

They allegedly took the 2-year-old into two shops, where shopkeepers noticed he had fresh bruises on his face. A 12-year-old who knew one of the boys challenged them, telling them to take the toddler home or he would beat them up, the prosecution alleges