Watchdog finds serious probation failings over Zara’s killer

Tuesday, Jan 24, 2023

LONDON: Failings by probation officers left a sexual predator “free” to stalk and kill law graduate Zara Aleena just days after he was released from jail, according to a watchdog.

In a damning report, Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell highlighted a catalogue of errors in the Probation Service’s handling of Jordan McSweeney which meant he was not treated as a high-risk offender when he should have been.

McSweeney, 29, was handed a life sentence and jailed for at least 38 years last month after admitting carrying out a “terrifying and ruthless” attack on 35-year-old Ms Aleena in Ilford, east London, in June.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab ordered a review of how probation staff had supervised McSweeney – who had a string of convictions and a history of violence – when it emerged he had been freed from prison on licence nine days before the murder. In that time, his licence had been revoked after he failed to attend any meetings with probation officers but he had not been recalled to prison.

The report comes just a week after the watchdog laid bare another litany of failings by probation officers before Damien Bendall murdered three children and his pregnant partner.

Mr Russell said: “Jordan McSweeney should have been considered a high risk of serious harm offender. If he had, more urgent action would have been taken to recall him to prison, after he missed his supervision appointments on release from custody.

“The Probation Service failed to do so, and he was free to commit this most heinous crime on an innocent, young women. “Our independent review brings into sharp focus the consequences of these missed opportunities and reveals a Probation Service, in London, under the mounting pressure of heavy workloads and high vacancy rates.”

McSweeney was caught on CCTV drunkenly lurching in the street after being ejected from a pub for pestering a female member of staff and targeted at least five other women before he turned his attention to Ms Aleena as she walked home from a night out.

He stalked her before grabbing her from behind and dragging her into a driveway where , his court case heard, he repeatedly kicked and stamped on her head and body and sexually assaulted her.

The attack – just minutes from her front door and caught on grainy CCTV – lasted nine minutes and resulted in 46 separate injuries.

Ms Aleena, who was training to be a solicitor, was found with severe head injuries and struggling to breathe. She later died in hospital.

In court, the prolific thief and burglar was described as a “damaged person” from a young age, who had a troubled childhood where domestic violence was the “norm”.

He was taken into care, expelled from school and started drug dealing and bare knuckle fighting for money. McSweeney had 28 previous convictions for 69 separate offences dating back 17 years including burglary, theft of a vehicle, criminal damage, assaulting police officers and assaulting members of the public while on bail. He also had a history of violence towards ex-partners and was handed a restraining order for an offence against a woman in 2021.

Mr Russell said McSweeney was considered a “violent and threatening man” and “all the evidence” shows on release from prison he should have been classed as a “high risk of serious harm”. But he was wrongly assessed as a “medium” risk because “each of the offences, his behaviours in prison, and his criminal history, had been reviewed in isolation.”

Mr Russell said: “Prison and probation services didn’t communicate effectively about McSweeney’s risks, leaving the Probation Service with an incomplete picture of someone who was likely to reoffend.

“Following his release from prison and successive appointments being missed, the Probation Service failed to take prompt action to recall him to custody. Once that decision had been made, there were also delays in signing the necessary paperwork to initiate the recall. Had this been done sooner, opportunities for the police to locate and arrest McSweeney would have been maximised.”

The staff involved had “unmanageable workloads made worse by high staff vacancy rates”, Mr Russell added as he highlighted a problem which the watchdog has “increasingly seen” in inspections of services.

Making 10 recommendations, the watchdog called for an urgent review of how probation staff gauge the risk criminals pose to others among a series of other measures, adding that it is “crucial” for the Probation Service to tackle the “wider systemic” problems.

The report highlighted how several concerns had been raised before and that some of the recommendations “mirror” those made after the Joseph McCann case.

The serial rapist carried out a series of sex attacks after being freed from prison following “major failings” by an “unstable” team of inexperienced probation staff, a report published in June 2020 concluded.

He was handed 33 life sentences with a minimum term of 30 years in 2019 for attacks on 11 women and children.Inspectors found that officials were warned years earlier that McCann had the hallmarks of a sex offender, with probation officers later missing eight chances to keep him behind bars.

The need to repeat the recommendations “yet again raises questions” as to whether the Probation Service “is learning the lessons of past mistakes”, the watchdog said, adding: “It is vital that they do so in the future.”

Last week Mr Russell also told how the Probation Service’s handling of “psychopathic” criminal Bendall was of an “unacceptable standard” at every stage and “critical opportunities” to correct errors were missed.

The 33-year-old is serving a whole-life order for the murders of Terri Harris, 35, her daughter Lacey Bennett, 11, her son John Paul Bennett, 13, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, 11, after he attacked them with a claw hammer at their home in Killamarsh, Derbyshire. He also admitted raping Lacey.