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Authorities under fire as killer who stabbed wife 33 times is thrown back in jail after attacking his new partner

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 14/04/2016

Trevor McCandless
Trevor McCandless
Zara McCandless

A convicted killer has been thrown back in prison after assaulting his partner while on a pre-release scheme - leading to questions about why he was ever freed.

Trevor McCandless was jailed for at least 15 years in 2001 after being convicted of murdering his wife Zara in a frenzied knife attack.

He stabbed her 33 times in front of their eight-year-old son.

But while on a phased release programme from Maghaberry Prison in January McCandless attacked his partner following an argument.

Yesterday a judge said she was jailing him for the protection of the public.

It has led to calls for more careful scrutiny before dangerous individuals are released back into society.

Jonathan Craig, a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said the case showed some offenders were being freed too early.

"For the sake of public safety, I do believe some of these people should be kept in prison longer," he said.

Dungannon Magistrates Court heard yesterday that police were called to a Cookstown shop on January 8 after reports a woman had been attacked.

The victim said she was assaulted by McCandless following an argument.

McCandless (52), whose address was given as Maghaberry Prison, was arrested at a local hostel and admitted the incident.

He was immediately returned to custody.

While a pre-sentence report was prepared and presented to the court, District Judge Bernie Kelly did not refer to it, instead deeming it "a waste of money".

However, she expressed concern for the victim and enquired as to whether she had been aware of McCandless's previous murder conviction when entering into a relationship with him.

A defence solicitor confirmed she was fully aware as disclosure was made through Social Services.

He further confirmed McCandless had been returned to custody immediately and any work towards release will be halted until the sentence for the assault is served.

Judge Kelly was further perturbed that the victim has teenage children. Addressing McCandless, she said: "You are currently a serving prisoner with no date for release. That is down to the decision of the Parole Commissioners.

"I have no other option but to impose a custodial sentence - if only for public safety."

McCandless was jailed for two months.

Mr Craig, a DUP candidate in next month's Assembly election, said more careful consideration needed to be given to early release.

"When we are talking about someone getting released from prison, especially someone with a history of violence, there needs to be a more detailed and in-depth psychological report," he added.

"If they have not reformed, there needs to be safeguards put around these people regarding whatever freedom they have.

"As we've seen in this case, they will repeat offend, and that means someone else being injured or, worse still, killed."

Alastair Ross, the outgoing chair of Stormont's justice committee, also said a review was required.

"We need to look at how the criminal justice system gives more reassurance to the public," he said.

"There should be safeguards in place to make sure there is not a risk to the public. If someone goes out and reoffends, clearly that case has fallen through the net and hasn't been adequately examined."

Mr Ross said a different approach was needed in cases involving violent offenders.

"I think we need to be smarter, and a smarter justice system means that for violent offenders we take a certain approach to make sure the public are protected," he added. "There is clearly public concern around violent offenders and how they are being released from prison early.

"But likewise we need adequate focus on non-violent offenders so that they can be reintegrated into society."

McCandless was sentenced to life for the 1998 murder of his wife Zara in Coleraine.

He stabbed her repeatedly after she said the marriage was over.

In 2001 McCandless was told he would have to spend at least 15 years behind bars.

At the time the victim's father warned the sentence was not long enough. Robert Walker had said: "I don't think he should ever be allowed out for what he did to my daughter. I watched him during the trial. He showed no remorse whatsoever.

"He is just evil and is in the proper place, but he should never be allowed out."

In 2014 Sunday Life reported that after being freed from prison the previous year, McCandless claimed to have found a new girlfriend.

A woman reportedly complained to the authorities that she was being bothered by McCandless, leading him to be returned to jail. During his first stint in prison McCandless claimed to have found God.

He even made a video with fellow lifers Ronnie Graham, a child-killing paedophile, and serial armed robber Joe Lockhart, talking about how they had been "saved".

In one scene McCandless and Lockhart were filmed placing their hands on evil Graham's head while praying.

He beamed afterwards: "In trusting in the Lord, I have received my self-confidence back again and I no longer worry about what people say or think."

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