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Harry Roberts – what sentence would he receive today?

Daily Mirror the day after the killings

For those who do not know, the Harry Roberts we are talking about today is a man who murdered three police officers in 1966 – not the doctor who dedicated his career to helping the sick of Stepney. Ironically, it is the doctor who is more worthy of our memories but it is the murderer who dominates out thoughts.

In Shepherd’s Bush, Roberts shot DC Con Wombwell, 25, in the face then shot DS Christopher Head, 30, killing both officers instantly.  His accomplice shot PC Geoffrey Fox, 41, killing him too.  Roberts had been sitting in a van with John Duddy and John Witney after the three committed an armed robbery.  The three police officers approached the van to ask some questions when the gang opened fire on the unarmed officers, killing all three.

Following the doctrine of joint enterprise, Roberts was convicted of all three murders even though he actually killed two of the officers himself.

After his trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum sentence of 30 years.  He escaped the death sentence as it was abolished a few months before his case came to trial.  In the end, Roberts served a massive 48 years’ imprisonment, 18 years over his sentence tariff.  When he was released he became the longest serving prisoner ever to be released.

The Daily Mirror dedicated its front page to publishing the story that Roberts had passed his driving test and “chuckled” at his achievement.  This led to comments like this on Twitter:

The Mirror’s story is not about whether he served long enough in prison – my personal view is that it is purely a story designed to caused outrage and sell more newspapers, but then what do I know about producing newspapers?  But, if he received a 30 year tariff in 1966 what sentence would he get if he were sentence half a century later in 2015?

The Criminal Justice Act 2003, section 4, indicates that certain murders will carry, not only a mandatory life sentence, but a starting point of a whole of life sentence.  Various circumstances can put a murder into the whole of life category, such as:

  1. The murder of 2 or more people where there is a substantial degree of planning, kidnapping or sexual/sadistic conduct;
  2.  Murder of a child which involves kidnapping or sexual/sadistic conduct;
  3.  A murder done to advance a political, religious or ideological cause; and
  4. Murder committed by an offender previously convicted of murder.
Personally, I think I would remove the need for sexual/sadistic conduct from the murder of a child but that is a side issue not for today.

As of the 13th April 2015, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, section 27, is in force in England and Wales.  The effect of the 2015 Act is to amend the Criminal Justice Act 2003, section 4 by adding in section 4(2)(ba), which adds the murder of a police or prison officer in the course of their duty to the list of crimes that attract a whole of life sentence.

So, let’s apply modern sentencing to the facts of Robert’s case.  He had committed an armed robbery and was approached by three police officers.  He must have realised, or at least thought, that the officers were investigating the robbery.  He and his accomplices decided to avoid arrest by opening fire on the police officers knowing that if the van were searched their firearms would be discovered and they would go to prison.

There can be no doubt that the three police officers were acting in the course of their duty when they were killed.  Therefore, section 4(2)(ba) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 applies and the starting sentence for an offence of this kind would be a whole of life sentence.

So, outrage that a “cop killer” doesn’t receive a whole of life sentence is outrage at the past and not at current sentencing policy.


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