Jordan McSweeney had only recently been released from prison and had targeted more than one woman before he preyed on the 35-year-old as she walked home from a night out early on Sunday, June 26.
At a hearing on Friday, McSweeney, 29, of Dagenham, Essex, pleaded guilty to murder and sexual assault.
Prosecutor Oliver Glasgow KC had said McSweeney launched an “attack upon a lone female late at night making her way home, a woman who stood no chance”.
During the brief hearing, Sweeney stood in the dock and stared at the floor as he entered his guilty pleas while Ms Aleena’s family looked on in court.
The defendant had dragged Ms Aleena into a driveway in Cranbrook Road, Ilford, east London, where he subjected her to a ferocious assault.
He sexually assaulted the law graduate and made off with her mobile phone, keys and handbag, the prosecution said.
Emergency services were called at 2.44am after she was found with severe head injuries, partially naked and struggling to breathe.
Ms Aleena was taken to hospital where she died later that morning.
A post-mortem examination found she had suffered multiple serious injuries.
Police officers gathered CCTV footage, witness statements, DNA and fingerprint evidence.
Video footage from the area showed McSweeney appearing to target other women before he followed Ms Aleena.
After the killing, other CCTV captured him returning to his caravan in Dagenham, where police recovered Ms Aleena’s bloodstained clothes.
More bloodstains were found on a wall in Cranbrook Road with the defendant’s fingerprint identified on them.
After his arrest, McSweeney refused to answer questions but told officers he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While in custody, he was also said to have threatened police officers.
Having been charged with murder, he was remanded into custody after a judge found he was a “substantial risk” to the public, especially lone women.
At a previous hearing, the court was told McSweeney was a prolific offender and had been released from prison on licence on June 17 – just days before the murder.
He had been in prison for criminal damage, racially aggravated harassment and unauthorised possession of a knife in prison.
He has 28 convictions for 69 separate offences including burglary, theft of a vehicle, criminal damage, assaulting police officers and assaulting members of the public while on bail.
Ms Aleena’s family described her as independent, big-hearted and a joy.
Her aunt Farah Naz had said her niece had been conscious of the dangers for women after the murders of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa.
But she had felt “safe” walking in the community where she was well known.
Ms Naz said: “Zara was not a woman who was unaware that there were dangers in the world. She did not imagine what happened to those women would happen to her.
“She didn’t know she was going to be on this list because in her mind she took those precautions.”
Ms Aleena had begun working at the Royal Courts of Justice five weeks before her death and was “the happiest she had ever been”, her family said.
McSweeney’s plea hearing had been delayed after the defendant suffered Covid in custody.
His barrister George Carter-Stephenson KC said: “He is still feeling unwell from Covid but realises the importance of being here today.”
Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb adjourned sentencing until December 14.
She told McSweeney: “You pleaded guilty to very serious matters. I’m sure you appreciate the kind of sentence you will receive.
“But I will listen very carefully to the Crown’s opening of the case and the submissions on your behalf so it’s in your interests to cooperate with those representing you.”
After the hearing, Senior Crown Prosecutor Olcay Sapanoglu welcomed the pleas, saying: “It was an horrific attack on a woman walking home after a night out with a friend.
“It appears clear that McSweeney was intent that night on finding a woman to attack. Having seen Zara walking home he decided to follow her.
“Having followed her for several minutes he pulled Zara into the driveway of a house, where he carried out his assault.
“He sexually assaulted her, then brutally stamped on her several times before appearing to walk away. Moments later he returned, only to stamp on her several times more and then, finally, leaving her for dead.
“McSweeney did not display a shred of humanity towards Zara. Indeed, having completed his initial assault he returned to inflict further injuries, leading to her death. At no stage during his police interviews did he express any sorrow for his actions.
“Zara’s family will never recover from the senseless loss of their daughter, but I hope that these guilty pleas bring them some comfort.
“Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the police, who worked tirelessly to trace Zara’s killer allowing us to build the strongest case possible against McSweeney.”