Probation blunders left Zara Aleena’s murderer free to roam the streets

Zara Aleena murder London - Metropolitan Police/PA Wire
Zara Aleena murder London - Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

A watchdog has warned it is “impossible to say” that the Probation Service is keeping the public safe from freed violent criminals after a second case in a week exposed blunders that led to the murders of two women and three children.

Justin Russell, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation, said it was “not getting it right” in its “core function” to protect the public as he had to issue a second damning report where “unacceptable” errors left a killer free to murder at random.

He said that the murder and sexual assault of Zara Aleena by Jordan McSweeney in a random late-night attack last year exposed serious failings in the Probation Service to accurately assess the risk posed by criminals and protect the public from them.

In a report on the case out on Tuesday, he said that McSweeney should have been classed as “high risk” when he was released from jail just nine days before he murdered the 35-year-old law graduate in the early hours of June 26 2022.

Instead, probation and prison officers assessed him as a “medium” risk even though he had a criminal record going back 17 years with 28 convictions, had been violent and threatening during his prison sentence, both to other inmates and staff, and had carried weapons inside jail.

Jordan McSweeney life jail murder - Metropolitan Police/PA Wire
Jordan McSweeney life jail murder - Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

As a result of the bungled assessment, he was placed on a lower level of supervision. It meant that probation officers delayed recalling him to jail after he missed appointments with them just days into his release. This denied police the chance to arrest him and prevent the murder of Ms Aleena in east London.

This followed Mr Russell’s damning report last week into Damien Bendall, the triple child killer who was also wrongly assessed as “medium risk”, which meant that he was allowed to walk free from court on a suspended sentence, and live with the partner and children that he subsequently murdered with a claw hammer.

Mr Russell said: “Until the Probation Service puts those things right, and it should be an absolute priority for the service, it’s impossible to say the public has been properly protected from the risks that people on probation pose to them.

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“It is a core function of the Probation Service to protect the public, to protect families from these risks and they are not getting it right at the moment.”

Damian Hinds, the justice minister, said: “This was a despicable crime and I apologise unreservedly to Zara Aleena’s family for the unacceptable failings in this case.

“We are taking immediate steps to address the serious issues raised by the Jordan McSweeney and Damien Bendall cases. This includes mandatory training to improve risk assessments, implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders, and we have taken disciplinary action where appropriate.”

McSweeney, 29, was jailed for life last month for the murder and told that he will serve a minimum of 38 years.

Like Bendall, McSweeney’s long criminal record of 66 crimes of assaults, theft and burglary included violence against women, including GBH, and robbery of a friend of his mother.

If he had been classed as high, rather than medium, risk on release from jail, he could have been tagged, forced to live in an approved premises and subject to the same intense supervision as a terrorist.

Mr Russell said: “Jordan McSweeney should have been considered a ‘high risk of serious harm’ offender. If he had been, more urgent action would have been taken to recall him to prison.

“The Probation Service failed to do so, and he was free to commit this most heinous crime on an innocent, young woman.”

Missed opportunities

This error was compounded by “missed opportunities” to recall him on June 17 2022 after he failed to attend a second supervision appointment with probation officers.

When he missed a third appointment three days later, probation officers acted but took longer than the recommended 24 hours to sign off his recall.

“Had a recall been initiated following the missed appointment on 20 June, or completed within the specified timescale on 23 June, the time for police to locate and arrest JM would have been maximised,” said Mr Russell.

On June 26, Ms Aleena was on her way home when she was attacked, sexually assaulted and murdered by McSweeney, who had followed a number of other women that night before picking on her.