Jason Roberts found not guilty of murdering police officers

Jason Roberts could soon be out of custody for the first time in more than two decades after being acquitted of murdering police officers Gary Silk and Rodney Miller in Melbourne’s south-east in 1998.

Roberts was convicted of the murders in 2002 but the Court of Appeal quashed that verdict in 2020 and granted a retrial, giving him hope he would soon leave jail, having entered as a teenager.

Jason Roberts (right) outside the Supreme Court during his trial.Credit:Jason South

A Supreme Court jury on Monday found Roberts, 41, not guilty of two charges of murder over the officers’ deaths, the latest chapter in one of Victoria’s longest-running legal sagas following the infamy over what happened on that cold, dark Moorabbin road.

The jury began deliberating on Thursday afternoon and sat over the weekend.

Roberts was first arrested and taken into custody in August 2000, days before his 20th birthday, and has spent more than half his life in jail.

Sergeant Silk and Senior Constable Miller were fatally shot in Cochranes Road after midnight on August 16, 1998. Bandali Debs was found guilty of the murders in 2002 and his role has never been in doubt.

Sergeant Gary Silk (left) and Senior Constable Rodney Miller.

The officers were on stakeout outside the Silky Emperor Chinese restaurant as police investigated hold-ups on small businesses through Melbourne’s suburbs. They saw a Hyundai Excel drive in and out of the restaurant car park and followed it to nearby Cochranes Road, where they pulled over the hatchback and got out to speak to the driver.

Moments later, both were shot.

Silk was shot three times with two guns – a .38 revolver and a .357 – and died at the scene, without pulling his gun from its holster. Miller was shot once with a .357 and fired four shots himself, and staggered to the Silky Emperor, where he was found critically injured by other officers. He died in hospital hours later.

Roberts’ retrial boiled down to whether he was with Debs in Cochranes Road.

The scene in Cochranes Road, Moorabbin, on August 16, 1998 after the shootings.Credit:Wayne Hawkins

Roberts gave evidence and insisted he wasn’t there, and was with then-girlfriend Nicole – Debs’ daughter and the owner of the Hyundai – at the Debs family home in Narre Warren that night.

But prosecutors argued Roberts was there, just as he was with Debs in 10 hold-ups over the previous five months, where victims reported there were two masked bandits, a master and an apprentice.

At the retrial, Roberts pleaded guilty to 10 charges of armed robbery and admitted he and Debs did the hold-ups – a change in position from his 2002 trial, during which he denied any involvement in them or the shootings. He said in his evidence last month that he helped Debs cover up the shootings and lied to police about his involvement.

On the murder charges, Roberts’ lawyers raised enough doubt to convince the jury to find the accused not guilty.

Jason Roberts (right) outside the Supreme Court in June.Credit:Joe Armao

The jury’s decision followed a marathon trial that began in March and featured about 90 witnesses, 200 exhibits and hours of recorded conversations.

Roberts was granted a retrial when the Court of Appeal ruled police misconduct corrupted the fairness of his original trial. That ruling followed a probe by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, over allegations some officers who were with the dying Miller had their witness statements revised and backdated.

In one example, police officer Glenn Pullin’s second statement – in which he said he heard Miller say “they were on foot” – was backdated and presented as an original, when Pullin’s first statement didn’t contain those words.

Roberts’ lawyers in his retrial, led by David Hallowes, SC, argued “the stench of police misconduct” hovered over the case and made the police witnesses’ evidence unreliable, and told the jury there was a reasonable doubt.

Bandali Debs outside the Supreme Court in 2002.Credit:Joe Armao

Debs, now 68, also gave evidence and told the jury Roberts was with him in Moorabbin.

But Hallowes argued Debs couldn’t be believed given his habitual lying and said Debs alone shot Silk and Miller with two guns.

The barrister argued covert recordings of conversations between the pair weren’t conclusive that Roberts was in Moorabbin and that Roberts was truthful in his evidence, admitting he lied years earlier to conceal his involvement in the hold-ups.

Defence counsel David Hallowes, SC.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Prosecutor Ben Ihle, QC, argued it was implausible for Debs to have been alone in Moorabbin, based on the tendency of him and Roberts to always act together either in armed robberies or surveillance. It was “ludicrous”, the prosecutor suggested, Debs alone could have shot two experienced officers by himself.

Ihle said there were two gunmen based on evidence that showed Silk was shot with two guns, that Miller fired in two directions, that police who comforted the dying officer heard him refer to two offenders, and in a recorded conversation Debs referred to “us” and “we” when speaking about that night to a family member.

Had Roberts been found guilty he faced the prospect of spending most, if not the rest of his life, in prison.

He was 17 when the shootings happened and was 22 when jailed for life in 2003, to serve 35 years before he became eligible for parole.

Changes to Victorian laws in 2016 meant anyone convicted of murdering police would not be granted parole, and the changes were retrospective, so Roberts had to serve his life sentence.

In 2003, Debs was jailed for life with no chance of parole. He was later found guilty of murdering Kristy Harty in the Dandenong Ranges in 1997 and murdering Donna Hicks in Sydney’s western suburbs in 1995.

He said in evidence that he shot Miller first and Roberts shot Silk, and that they drove away and began concealing their involvement.

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