A man who was convicted of killing two police officers has been acquitted after spending 22 years behind bars.
Jason Roberts was just 17 years old when Victorian police officers Gary Silk and Rodney Miller were murdered at Moorabbin, 15 kilometres south-east of Melbourne’s CBD, in 1998.
Four years later in 2002, a jury found Mr Roberts and Bandali Debs, who was the father of Roberts’ then girlfriend, guilty of murdering both of the officers. The judge then sentenced each of the men to life imprisonment.
But last week, Mr Roberts was formally acquitted of the murder convictions after a retrial in the Supreme Court of Victoria.
The retrial was ordered by the state’s Court of Appeal in 2020, which made the decision in light of fresh evidence that “improper police practices” were used to base the charges and secure the convictions.
Mr Roberts has now walked free from prison after a long battle to prove his innocence, and due to the operation of the doctrine of double-jeopardy, the prosecution will be unable to retry him.
Police misconduct tainted original trial
The Appeal Court’s order for a retrial followed an investigation by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission into reports that a number of officers who were with Officer Rodney Miller as he lay critically injured, had doctored and backdated their witness statements.
The retrial has been running since March this year and included more than 90 witnesses, 200 exhibits and several hours of recorded conversations.
The Supreme Court jury took five days to find Mr Roberts not guilty of two charges of murder, in a trial the judge described as “the hardest case” he had seen for a jury.
His Honour granted the jurors a lifetime exemption from jury duty for their efforts.
The facts of the case
On the night they were killed, officers Gary Silk and Rodney Miller were investigating a series of armed robberies that had allegedly been committed in at least ten restaurants in and around Melbourne over a seven-year period.
The officers were gunned down at close range as they were staking out a Chinese restaurant at around midnight.
Officer Silk died instantly, while officer Miller stumbled to the restaurant where he collapsed on the footpath.
Officer Miller allegedly told back-up officers as they arrived at the scene that two people were responsible for the shootings, one of whom was on foot,
The officer died hours later in hospital.
Defendant maintains innocence
Mr Roberts has always maintained he was with his girlfriend and planning his own birthday party on the night the shootings occurred.
Although he initially professed his innocence in relation to both the robberies and the murders, Roberts has since pleaded guilty to robberies committed with Mr Debs in the period leading up to the killings.
However, he has always been adamant that he was not with Debs on the day of the shootings.
During the retrial, Roberts’ legal team argued that conducting robberies on different days in the company of Mr Debs did not make their client a killer.
Life in prison
Mr Roberts was originally sentenced to a full-term of life in prison and ordered to serve at least 35 years of the sentence before becoming eligible to apply for release on parole.
However, in 2016, the Victorian Government introduced laws which mean that anyone convicted of murdering a police officer would never be granted parole, and the law had retrospective operation, meaning he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
To be sentenced for robberies
Mr Roberts has now been granted bail in respect of 10 charges of armed robbery, to which he has pleaded guilty, and is expected to be sentenced for those offences in September this year.
In Victoria, armed robbery is an indictable offence that carries a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 3,000 penalty units.
His lawyers will almost certainly argue that the time their client has served is sufficient for the purposes of his sentence.
Possible civil claim
While the verdict puts an end to one of the most significant chapters in Victoria Police history, the legal battle is not yet over.
Experts have suggested that Mr Roberts may have a civil claim against the police, should he choose to pursue it, because the replacement of original witness statements was “tantamount to a manipulation of the evidence”.