WHEN “cop killer” Harry Roberts was sentenced to life in jail for the cold-blooded murder of three unarmed policemen in 1966, a judge said it was unlikely he would ever get out.
Roberts gunned down plain-clothed Detective Sergeant Christopher Head, 30, and Detective Constable David Wombwell, 25, during a botched robbery in a London suburb.
An accomplice shot Flying Squad officer Geoffrey Fox, 41.
He would have hanged for it, had the death penalty not been abolished just the year before.
The gang had been sitting in Roberts’ van near Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London preparing for an armed robbery when he opened fire on the three unarmed officers.
The triple murder and subsequent trial shocked the nation.
Mr Justice Glyn-Jones said at the time that the “enormity” of the crime meant it was unlikely Roberts would be shown mercy and freed after his minimum 30-year term.
Yet on Monday, 45 years later, the once cocky career criminal became a free man, following a decision by the independent parole board to release him.
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Roberts, now 78, was freed from Littlehey prison in Cambridgeshire at night despite a long-ruinning campaign against his release.
His fellow criminals John Witney and John Duddy are both dead. Witney was murdered after he was released from jail.
But the release of Roberts has sparked outrage.
Mandy Fox, the youngest daughter of PC Fox, branded the decision a “disgrace” and said she was “sickened” that Roberts was being released.
Gillian Wombwell, the widow of Mr Wombwell, said: “Our sentence is for life and so should his be.”
Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, John Tully, said on Twitter that he thought Roberts’ release was “sickening”.
Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said a life sentence should have been just that.
Home Secretary Theresa May and London mayor Boris Johnson added their voices to the chorus calling for Roberts to remain behind bars.
However, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg last month defended the parole board which decided on the release, saying such a decision is not about “feelings” but “how the justice system works”.
He said: “If you want to run the system according to the latest emotion you feel, fine, but that would be a disaster.”
Asked about Roberts’ release, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas, said: “The way in which the licence system now works I think is pretty clear.
“Once a judge has expressed his view as to the amount of time required to serve in prison – to deal with the elements of punishment and retribution and deterrence – then the judiciary have no role other than the judiciary’s supervisory role by judicial review over the parole board.
“And that’s the structure upon which it was set out and we have to respect it entirely. It would be inappropriate for me to express a view on their decision.”
Ministers no longer have the powers to intervene in such cases, but Mrs May said last year that she would introduce legislation to make sure those who murder police officers are never released.
However, just as he escaped the noose by a few months when convicted, it seems Roberts has one more slice of luck. The new law is not expected to come into force until next year.
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