Police killer will ask High Court to clear way for his release

Harry Roberts mounts a legal campaign to gain access to 'secret evidence' he claims is prejudicing his case for release

Britain's most notorious police killer, Harry Roberts, will attempt tomorrow to clear the way for his release from prison after 36 years by bringing a High Court legal action against the Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

In papers submitted to the court, Roberts claims that Mr Blunkett acted unlawfully in trying to block his release by using a dossier of "secret evidence" against him.

The case, which will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, could help Roberts, 66, to gain his freedom by December.

He became one of the most infamous prisoners in modern history when he was jailed in 1966 for the murder of three unarmed police officers in Shepherd's Bush, west London. He had evaded capture for three months despite the biggest manhunt in Britain.

The case caused moral outrage over rising criminality in Sixties society and Roberts, who is now one of the country's longest-serving prisoners, has consistently faced strident police opposition to his release from custody.

Mr Blunkett's dossier is believed to be largely based on police intelligence on Roberts, compiled last year when the prisoner was on day release from open prison.

Tomorrow's court hearing follows the refusal of the Parole Board to consider Roberts' case on the basis of the Home Secretary's file of evidence. The board considered that his legal representatives should have the opportunity to challenge the material.

It told Mr Blunkett of its decision in June, after the ground-breaking Stafford ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that prisoners are entitled to independent determination of their suitability for release rather than having their liberty decided by the ruling of a politician.

Proceedings against Mr Blunkett were begun in August in an attempt to use the Stafford ruling to persuade the High Court to compel the Home Secretary to hand the material to Roberts' lawyers.

Simon Creighton, the solicitor representing Roberts, said the Home Office had for the past 10 years used a system that allowed sensitive material in parole reviews to be disclosed to a legal representative alone.

The system was used in the review of the release of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the child killers of the Liverpool toddler James Bulger.

Mr Creighton said: "No explanation has ever been given as to why this procedure should not be adopted in Mr Roberts' case. There is no other procedure where a person's liberty is decided on the basis of secret evidence."

He pointed out that even terror suspects held in jail under new post-11 September emergency legislation had the right to have secret material about them viewed by a special advocate who could represent their case.

If Roberts is successful, he is likely to appear in front of the Parole Board by the end of the year and could be released immediately.

Such a prospect would alarm relatives of the police officers, who were shot after Roberts and his gang were stopped while planning an armed robbery. Roberts killed Detective Constable David Wombwell and Sergeant Christopher Head. His accomplice John Duddy then shot Constable Geoffrey Fox.

Duddy died in jail and a third member of the gang, Jack Witney, was murdered after his release in 1999.

At Roberts' trial at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Glyn-Jones ordered he serve at least 30 years. He added: "I think it likely that no Home Secretary, regarding the enormity of your crimes, will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you."

DC Wombwell's widow, Gillian, told a newspaper last year that she could not face the thought of Roberts being released. "Too much care and sympathy goes with the criminal but not enough with the widows and children," she said. "The man is and was a criminal."

The Roberts case, which was the basis of the recent bestselling novel He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott, has become part of British folklore. Football hooligans have for decades used the killer's name to taunt police officers with chants of "Harry Roberts, he's our friend, he's our friend, he's our friend – he kills coppers ... Let him out to kill some more, kill some more ..."

Roberts began behaving as a model prisoner in the early Nineties. He was transferred in 1999 to open prison, from where he was allowed out each day to work unsupervised at the St Bernard's Animal Sanctuary in Alfreton, Derbyshire.

Then on 1 October last year he was recalled to closed prison conditions. He was placed in solitary confinement and told he was being punished for taking driving lessons in contravention of his licence.

The next month, newspapers reported that off-duty police officers had seen Roberts mixing with known criminals in London.

Roberts claims that prison staff were aware of his driving lessons, which were part of his preparation for release, and that the stories that he visited London were simply untrue.

The Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, has pledged to oppose any move to free the killer, who in turn claims he is being tortured by not being given a release date.

"I'm not going to get into trouble again, am I?" Roberts claimed in an interview six years ago. Nobody would want to work with me, for a start. I'm too hot. I'm finished with all that and they know it."

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