Social media users who shared pictures claiming to identify James Bulger killers given suspended sentences

Two social media users have been given nine-month suspended sentences for breaching an injunction by sharing pictures of people they believed to be the killers of James Bulger.

Neil Harkins and Dean Liddle shared pictures on Facebook and Twitter respectively on 14 February this year, 20 years after Bulger's murder.

Mr Justice Tugendhat decided the injunction breach warranted a custodial sentence of nine months, but decided to take the “exceptional course” of suspending the sentence for a period of 15 months.

He said it was hoped the length of the sentence would send a clear message and called on the Attorney General to ensure that the injunction "is published in a prominent position so no one can claim her or she does not appreciate the serious consequences to which we have referred”.

In January 2001, president of the Family Division Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss granted an injunction to Bulger’s killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

It restricted the use of images, films or voice recordings taken of the pair taken after February 1993.

The restriction was put in place to avoid “disastrous consequences” for Venables and Thompson, such as intrusion, harassment, physical harm and “possible death”.

Butler-Sloss said at the time: “If their new identities were discovered, I am satisfied that neither of them would have any chance of a normal life and that there is a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk.”

The risk of “mistaken identity” was also highlighted by the High Court.

On 14 February this year, Harkins shared photographs of people he believed were Venables and Thompson with his 141 Facebook friends.

He claimed they had been taken in the early 1990s and the late 2000s, writing: “Interesting that this photograph is not allowed to be shown and there is an investigation on how it got out. What is more interesting is why he got released and protected in the first place.”

The photographs he uploaded were shared more than 20,000 times on the site.

The police were informed the next day and Harkins was told that the Attorney General was considering bringing proceedings on 28 February. He was also asked to remove the photographs.

He told the Attorney General he had removed them and deleted his account on 1 March.

He said: "The article showed the images that I posted which I know are some of many which are widely accessible on the internet. I believed at the time that the images I posted were not within any legal constraints as they were freely accessible on the internet. I was also under the impression that the legal restrictions applied to images published in the media. However having received a copy of the injunction which you enclosed, I realise that is not the case."

Liddle, meanwhile, tweeted photographs purporting to identify the killers to 915 followers. He posted the pictures at about 1.42am on 14 February and removed them between 2.25 and 2.27am.

According to the High Court judgement, they were removed because someone “pointed out that the images were not those of Venables”.

The judgement says Liddle had known about the injunction, proven by a tweet saying: “I heard about it [the injunction] for a while, but posted it as people are talking about being prosecuted for putting it and I don’t think it’s right”.

He later apologised through a letter to the Attorney General. He said: “I don’t want to play dumb here, but I genuinely did not fully understand how serious this situation was. I am now fully aware of the injunctions and why they need to be upheld.”

Both Harkins and Liddle claimed they had seen the photographs elsewhere being circulated on the internet.

Read the full judgement here.

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