03 November 2023

Why did Zara Aleena’s murderer have his minimum term reduced?

03 November 2023

The judge who originally sentenced Zara Aleena’s murderer was wrong to increase his minimum prison term based on “inordinate suffering” of the law graduate, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

On Friday, Jordan McSweeney had the minimum term of his life sentence reduced from 38 to 33 years for sexually assaulting and killing Ms Aleena in Ilford, east London, in 2022.

In a 12-page ruling explaining the decision, the Lady Chief Justice Lady Carr said the sexual nature of the murder had already meant the starting point, the length of the sentence before a judge considers aggravation and mitigation, to be doubled from 15 to 30 years.

The most senior judge in England and Wales added that additional factors that could further increase the sentence include a significant degree of planning, or suffering inflicted on the victim before death.

Lady Carr, sitting with Mrs Justice McGowan and Mrs Justice Ellenbogen, said: “For mental or physical suffering to be an aggravating statutory feature, there must be suffering over and above that which is already inherent in a murder involving sexual conduct.”

She said the judge who originally sentenced McSweeney, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, ruled Ms Aleena “suffered inordinately” and this aggravated his crime.

However, the appeal judges ruled this was not a conclusion she could reach.

Lady Carr said: “We do not consider that a finding of inordinate suffering such as to amount to an aggravating feature was properly open to the judge.

“It is clear that, mercifully, Ms Aleena was rendered unconscious early on in the attack.

“No doubt, she suffered terror and pain during the assault in its early stages, fighting back bravely as she did.

“But in order to find that Ms Aleena suffered beyond that, the judge needed to be sure that Ms Aleena regained consciousness, and for a sufficient period of time to suffer inordinately.

“We can identify no, or no sufficiently compelling, evidence to support a conclusion that Ms Aleena regained consciousness.”

Lady Carr later said the sentencing judge’s conclusion that McSweeney took Ms Aleena’s phone to stop her calling for help was “not justified”.

She continued: “Equally, it may have been an overstatement to suggest that the appellant committed these offences in the expectation that he was likely to be returned to custody soon in any event.

“Whilst he would have been aware of his failures to comply with his licence conditions, he was unaware at the time of the attack that he had been recalled.”

The appeal judges said the sentencing judge correctly factored in evidence about McSweeney’s background and his ADHD, as well as his lack of remorse.

Lady Carr said: “She was fully entitled to conclude that none of it offered an excuse or explanation for the sexual assault and murder such as to justify a material reduction in his culpability.

“In terms of mitigation more generally, it is difficult to see how the appellant’s unhappy childhood and personal circumstances could provide any meaningful mitigation in the context of offending of this order and magnitude.”

The Court of Appeal heard McSweeney’s original sentence was a minimum term of 43 years before being reduced to 38 years to factor in his guilty pleas.

Reducing his sentence, Lady Carr concluded: “It is clear, given the multiple aggravating factors and lack of mitigating factors, that a minimum sentence well in excess of 30 years was merited.

“But we find ourselves unable to support an uplift of 13 years from the starting point of 30 years.”

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