Crucifix killer Karen Walsh loses appeal against conviction for battering her elderly neighbour to death
A pharmacist jailed for battering her elderly neighbour to death with a crucifix failed today in a bid to overturn her conviction.
Senior judges in Belfast rejected all grounds of appeal mounted by Karen Walsh to being found guilty of murdering Maire Rankin.
Claims that the jury was misdirected on DNA evidence, the time of death, the intention of whoever carried out the attack and Walsh's level of intoxication were dismissed.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan confirmed: "We have no sense of unease about the safety of this conviction."
Mrs Rankin, 81, was found dead in the bedroom of her Dublin Road home in Newry, Co Down on Christmas morning 2008.
The victim, a devout Catholic, had suffered up to 15 broken ribs and been beaten with a crucifix given to her as a wedding gift.
Evidence of a sexual assault - thought to have been carried out to cover the killer's tracks - was also discovered.
Walsh, a 48-year-old Dublin-based pharmacist who often stayed at a house she owned next door to the murdered pensioner, is currently serving a minimum 20-year prison sentence for carrying out the deadly attack.
During her trial, the prosecution claimed she arrived at Mrs Rankin's home already drunk and with a bottle of vodka.
It was alleged that the mother of one then flew into a rage and attacked the pensioner after being chastised about her drinking and told to go home to her young son.
Despite being found guilty of murder Walsh continued to protest her innocence.
She insisted that she left the victim's hours before the attack took place.
Over the course of a four-day appeal hearing her legal team contended that the jury was misdirected on key areas.
They argued that the guilty verdict was unsafe and that Walsh should be granted a retrial.
Part of the challenge was based on a contention that someone else could have been in Mrs Rankin's house shortly after the estimated time of death.
But after studying phone billing records a telecommunications expert called by the defence reversed his original opinion that three calls made to a pensioner's home after she was attacked were probably answered.
The court also heard that DNA recovered from the murder victim's chin contained all 11 markers matching those of Walsh.
The probability of a different match was put at less than one in a billion people.
Police called to the murder scene found a bottle of vodka Walsh claimed to have brought to Mrs Rankin as a Christmas present. It was still two thirds full.
Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justice Gillen and Mr Justice Deeny, held that the evidence did not raise a case that the pharmacist was so drunk that it affected the issue about whether she had formed an intent to kill.
Dismissing the appeal, he said: "In our view this was a strong circumstantial case."
Mrs Rankin's family packed the public the courtroom to hear the outcome of the appeal.
Walsh's accountant husband Richard Durkin sat directly in front of them in the public gallery.
They heard Sir Declan describe the victim as an independent and modest woman who was proud of her appearance, devoutly religious and rarely drank alcohol.
But her health was frail, taking medication for chest infections and needing to use a chair lift to get up and down the stairs to her bedroom.
She had been unwell in the days leading up to her death, but was starting to feel better by Christmas Eve.
In a telephone conversation that night one daughter recalled her being bubbly and looking forward to seeing the family on Christmas Day.
Instead, Mrs Rankin's body was found, partially covered, in a bedroom in a state of disarray.
Rejecting Walsh's claim to made the premises secure when she left hours earlier, Sir Declan pointed out there were no signs of any subsequent forced entry.
"The DNA evidence linked the applicant to the attack upon the deceased and the telephone evidence between 7.31am and 7.37am was overwhelming evidence that the applicant was using the deceased's phone at that time," he said.
Walsh, who appeared by prison video-link, gesticulated and started to say something as her appeal was thrown out before falling silent once more.
A defence barrister said he would take instructions from her before confirming whether to proceed with a further appeal against the jail term imposed.
Outside court the victim's relatives expressed relief at the outcome.
One of her daughters' Brenda Rankin, said: "It's been a very difficult process for us over the past six and a half years, it's taken an immense toll on the family."
She also hit out at Walsh for her continued attempts to overturn the murder conviction.
"There is a very evil, dangerous person who seems to have manipulated every aspect of the court system," Ms Rankin said.
"It seems that Karen Walsh has been pulling the strings of the legal system... and they have indulged her at every whim."
But praising Sir Declan's description of her mother, she added: "What the Lord Chief Justice brought back this morning was the sadness and the awful death she was subjected to.
"That's been completely ignored in the legal debate, but he talked about mummy and brought her back to the centre of the focus."
Senior public prosecutor Kirsten McKevitt also welcomed the appeal verdict.
She said: "The Public Prosecution Service legal team put considerable effort into ensuring that this case was properly presented at trial and also robustly defended at appeal.
"This has been a long journey for the family of Mrs Rankin and I am pleased for them with the outcome today."