Nine months ago, I woke to an early-morning call conveying the worst news imaginable.
My beloved niece Zara had been brutally murdered as she returned from a night out.
In the bewildering, grief-stricken days and months that followed, our close-knit family struggled to comprehend what had happened.
Not only had the life of our bubbly, thoughtful girl ended horrifically, it had been taken by a stranger who had picked her at random.
Zara’s killer, Jordan McSweeney, had followed her before launching a ferocious attack in which he sexually assaulted her, then left her to die on a suburban driveway in Ilford, East London.
As the judge who sentenced McSweeney to life in prison pointed out, Zara’s life had been taken by ‘fatal coincidence’. McSweeney was looking for a victim — and in Zara, a young woman returning home, he found one.
Nine months ago, I woke to an early-morning call conveying the worst news imaginable. My beloved niece Zara had been brutally murdered as she returned from a night out.
As the judge who sentenced McSweeney to life in prison pointed out, Zara’s life had been taken by ‘fatal coincidence’. McSweeney was looking for a victim — and in Zara, a young woman returning home, he found one (pictured: Farah Naz)
Not that McSweeney was there to hear the judge’s condemnation. Like a coward, he chose instead to remain in his cell, refusing to face the final consequences of his actions in public.
In doing so, he robbed our family of the opportunity to force him to confront the depths of our pain.
I was reminded of our devastation this week when Thomas Cashman, killer of nine-year-old schoolgirl Olivia Pratt-Korbel, also refused to attend court to receive his life sentence — and faced no repercussions at all for doing so.
His decision, like McSweeney’s, was a grotesque insult to Olivia’s grieving family, of course. But I believe it is more than that: it suggests a prison system in which respect for justice has been broken.
After all, standing in court to face judgment has historically been a deterrent to criminals — one necessarily lessened if they are not present. That’s why I welcome the decision by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab to pledge a new law compelling criminals to attend court for sentencing, by force if necessary.
I was reminded of our devastation this week when Thomas Cashman (pictured), killer of nine-year-old schoolgirl Olivia Pratt-Korbel, also refused to attend court to receive his life sentence
After Zara’s murder, Mr Raab pledged to make refusing to attend court an aggravating factor in sentencing. But so far this hasn’t happened — and surely this move is nothing less than what victims’ families deserve.
Cashman is the latest in a long line of hardened criminals who have chosen to thumb their noses at the law when justice was being meted out.
Among them was Anthony Russell, who murdered mother and son Julie and David Williams, and raped and murdered Nicole McGregor — who was five months pregnant — during his week-long killing spree in October 2020.
He refused to attend court for sentencing in March last year, meaning he never had to hear in person his whole-life sentence being passed.
Just a month later, Koci Selamaj, who had bludgeoned 28-year-old teacher Sabina Nessa in a South-East London park in September 2021, also refused to leave his cell for sentencing.
In December 2021, child killer Emma Tustin had refused to sit in the dock to be sentenced for the heinous abuse and murder of her six-year-old stepson, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. He died from an unsurvivable brain injury after months of torture at the hands of Tustin and his father, Thomas Hughes.
Not that McSweeney (pictured) was there to hear the judge’s condemnation. Like a coward, he chose instead to remain in his cell, refusing to face the final consequences of his actions in public
Nor can we forget the monster Levi Bellfield, who in 2008 refused to attend court for sentencing for the murders of two students, Marsha McDonnell, 19, and 22-year-old Amelia Delagrange. To this despicable list we can now add Cashman and McSweeney, whose callous disregard for human life has, like that of their predecessors, wreaked unimaginable havoc among the families of their victims.
Even now, nine months on, it is hard for all of us who knew and loved Zara to accept that she is gone.
Just 35 and the only child of my older sister, she was a much-loved young woman on the cusp of so many exciting things.
Not long before she died, Zara had started a new job as an administrative officer at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and hoped in time to use her law degree from the University of Westminster to become a solicitor.
Of course, she was also so much more than her work, a kind-hearted, active member of the community who helped her neighbours with their shopping and had a strong moral compass.
In other words, she was the antithesis of the 29-year-old who so callously took her life.
As a career criminal, McSweeney found in prison a second home — even before he received his life sentence. He had 28 convictions for 69 crimes, dating back to 2006 and ranging from burglary to assaulting the police as well as racially motivated offences.
McSweeney was also an audacious predator with a sense of entitlement: CCTV footage in the hours before he encountered Zara show a man intent on criminality.
He had sexually harassed one woman in an East London pub before being asked to leave, then stalked two other women. He attacked Zara on a well-lit residential street during a hot night when people had their windows open. The garden he dragged her into was behind a wall less than 2ft high.
This was a man unafraid of the consequences of his actions.
Since that terrible day, we’ve cried many times, not just because of our own pain, but also for Zara — imagining the fear she had to endure in her final moments.
Our suffering is immeasurable, but it pales into nothing when we think of Zara’s horrific end. None of us can bear the fact that the last face she got to see in her final moments was that of her killer.
Since that terrible day, we’ve cried many times, not just because of our own pain, but also for Zara — imagining the fear she had to endure in her final moments
I wanted McSweeney to hear our agony when I stood in court to read the family’s impact statement last December.
We wanted to speak for Zara and to force her killer to confront the fact that in taking her life so callously, he destroyed so many others’ lives, too.
When she sentenced McSweeney, the trial judge Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb labelled his failure to appear in court as ‘spineless’. However, I fear that he had a more visceral, more sinister motive for this.
By refusing to attend the hearing, he was exercising the last remaining power that he had over our family. He was telling us how little he cared for our grief and our pain.
He assaulted Zara, then murdered her — and then was allowed by the very system in which he had been found guilty of a terrible crime to shrink from his public judgment.
This cannot be right or fair. Not just for the victims and their families — but also for a society in which, as the aphorism goes, justice not only needs to be done, but must be seen to be done.
Letting criminals hide in their cells, failing to hear their sentences passed, utterly fails to meet this standard.
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