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Regina v. Debs and Roberts

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Court/Judicial body: Supreme Court of Victoria – Court of Appeal

Citation: [2005] VSCA 66
Date: 6 April 2005
Instrument(s) cited: Penal Reform Act 1956 Sentencing Act 1991 Penalties and Sentences Act 1985 Social Welfare Act

Case summary

Background: Debs and Roberts were convicted of murdering two members of the Victorian Police Force. At the time of the killings Debs was 45 years old and Roberts was 17 years old. In the case of Debs the sentencing judge imposed a life sentence and no parole period was fixed. In the case of Roberts the sentencing judge imposed a life sentence with a minimum term of imprisonment of 35 years before eligibility for parole. This appeal was brought by Debs and Roberts against their convictions and against their sentences.

Issue and resolution: Life imprisonment for young offenders. Whether Roberts’ sentence was manifestly excessive and whether the sentencing judge gave sufficient weight to his youth.  The Supreme Court of Victoria found that the sentencing judge did not err and that the sentence fell within the available range, therefore Roberts’ application was dismissed.

Court reasoning: The Court found that the sentencing judge did adequately consider Roberts’ youth in determining the appropriate sentence. The sentencing judge had stated that Roberts’ young age was a central consideration, as was his lack of convictions and good conduct in court.  However, he also stated that it was clear to him that Roberts had acted murderously and by his own free choice and decision. While he acknowledged that many young people act foolishly because of immaturity or through the misguided thrall of an older person, this was not the case for Roberts. Being one week short of 18-years old, the sentencing judge stated that Roberts was on the “threshold of adulthood” and that as a result of the armed robberies he had committed with Debs prior to the murders he was more hardened than his years. Roberts was intelligent, was not caught by surprise, had time to think, got out of the car with a loaded gun and fired the first shot in order to avoid apprehension. It was clear to the Court that the sentencing judge considered this particular crime – murdering a serving police officer in order to avoid apprehension for serious criminal conduct – as the worst category of murder. While the Court noted that it was inappropriate to approach the sentencing task by reference to categories of murder, it agreed with the general view of the sentencing judge regarding the significance attributed to this type of crime and also agreed that notwithstanding Roberts’ youth, the sentence of life imprisonment was proper in this case.  

The sentencing judge considered the following in determining the appropriate sentence for Roberts’ conduct: (i) condemnation, (ii) punishment, (iii) general and specific deterrence and (iv) reformation. The sentencing judge condemned Roberts’ murderous conduct and stated that Roberts would be punished in full measure for his conduct given he was almost 18 and acted with full knowledge and deliberation. He said specific deterrence (use of punishment to keep criminals from committing further crimes) and general deterrence (focused on general prevention of crime by making examples out of criminals) were also highly applicable in this case. With respect to Roberts’ prospects of reformation, the sentencing judge noted that on the one hand Roberts showed no remorse but on the other hand he was young (which was the only reason he was given a fixed parole period, as opposed to no eligibility for parole like Debs) and had acted positively in custody. Despite these considerations, the sentencing judge felt the elements of condemnation, punishment and general and specific deterrence to be of predominant significance in deriving the proper sentence to be imposed upon Roberts.   Accordingly, the Court found that the sentencing judge considered all relevant matters in his sentencing determination and that no specific error had been demonstrated to have been made by him, therefore the application was dismissed.

Notes: For more information on the issue of inhuman sentencing of children, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s ‘Inhuman sentencing’ campaign.

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