Belfast Telegraph

Woman 'murdered pensioner with a crucifix'

By Deborah McAleese

Take her from the courtroom and Karen Walsh could pass for any other middle-class, fortysomething, working mother.

From the ease and composure with which she sat in the dock, she could just as easily have been sitting at a PTA meeting or in a fashionable coffee shop.

Smartly dressed, with her blonde hair swept back in a ponytail and make-up perfectly applied, the businesswoman, mother-of-one and alleged murderess held her head high as she walked into the courtroom under the watchful eyes of her alleged victim's family.

She glanced towards the jury as prosecution barrister Liam McCollum QC warned them they would find this case "distressing and harrowing".

Walsh, Mr McCollum told them, is accused of murdering her next-door neighbour, 81-year-old widow Maire Rankin, on Christmas Eve 2008.

He said Mrs Rankin, who had been suffering from ill-health, was the victim of a "sustained assault on a fragile and delicate woman" which left her with a serious head injury and 15 broken ribs.

The loving grandmother was found lying naked on her bedroom floor on Christmas morning at her home on the Dublin Road in Newry.

Mr McCollum told the court there was strong evidence to suggest that Walsh carried out the attack, and that a crucifix was used to hit the elderly woman on the face.

A post-mortem examination also found bruising to the pensioner which the prosecution claims may have happened during a sexual assault after her death.

Walsh, who has admitted visiting Mrs Rankin for a Christmas drink, denies murdering her neighbour.

Her calm demeanour did not alter even as Mr McCollum said he believed he could link her to the murder through DNA evidence and "panicked" attempts to call her partner several times from Mrs Rankin's phone early on Christmas morning.

Jury members appeared disturbed when presented with an exhibit of police photographs taken at the murder scene.

In one section of the album were images of Mrs Rankin's living room showing a typical Christmas scene, with presents wrapped in colourful paper - one for her alleged killer's young son - as well as mince pies and chocolate. In a neat bundle on a table a number of religious books were stacked.

Upstairs and away from this festive scene, however, photographs taken inside Mrs Rankin's bedroom show her lifeless body and heavily bruised face lying on the floor, partially covered with a bed throw.

Another photograph shows her bruised arm, outstretched on the carpet, with fingers almost touching a crucifix which had once hung above her bed, now lying on the floor, the figure of Christ broken in half.

Mrs Rankin's brother-in-law Arthur Morgan broke down in the witness box when he was asked to look at one of the images of Mrs Rankin's dead body.

"Oh God," he whispered and then began to sob.

Mr Morgan told the court that he discovered her body on Christmas morning after his wife had been unable to contact her on the phone. He said he was worried so he drove to her house to check on her.

"I went into the hallway. On my way past the sitting room I glanced in and saw it was in a state of disarray, which was most unusual. I went upstairs to the bedroom and the first thing I saw was the big antique mirror lying on its side and clothes strewn about," he said.

"I saw a duvet on the floor. I looked to see if she was in bed then I saw this figure lying on the ground."

Mrs Rankin had been due to stay with her daughter Brenda and her family on Christmas Eve, but decided instead to stay at home as she was still recovering from a chest infection.

"I think it was the first time in her life that she spent Christmas Eve on her own. I tried to persuade her. I wish I had persuaded her. She was independent. She wanted to stay there. We couldn't know what would happen," Brenda told the court.

She discovered her mother had died when she arrived at her house on Christmas morning and met Mr Morgan as he was coming out of the house.

Brenda said she initially thought her mother had died from natural causes.

"But as I reached the bedroom I knew it wasn't right. I saw mummy's feet and her body partially covered," she said.

Brenda began to weep as she described how her mother's body was partially covered by a throw.

"It was for decoration. You wouldn't put that over someone for comfort or warmth. It was just thrown over her to cover her ... she was stretched out as though someone had laid her out and covered her.

"I knelt down and said a prayer. I knew that whatever way she died nobody had said a prayer. I knew it was important to mummy."

Mrs Rankin was described by her family as a neat and tidy person who took great care over her appearance, so details of how she had been left naked, and with clumps of her hair torn from her head, caused them distress.

"It was wrong to see her like that. It was very unusual that she did not have a night-dress on," Brenda told the court.

Another of Mrs Rankin's daughters, Aine Brodie, said: "Mummy was a very meticulous person. She was always very particular about her hair, the way she dressed, the way the house was kept. She was very highly principled.

"Going to church or to the shops, she was well-dressed and turned-out. She had a great sense of pride in herself.

"She always wore a night-dress and underpants going to bed. If she was up in her night-dress she would always have on one of her many dressing gowns. She was very modest."

Walsh wrapped her coat tightly around her as she left the dock at the end of yesterday's hearing.

Her husband, Richard Durkin, who had sat in the public gallery throughout the day, entered the main courtroom to meet her as she came out of the dock, released on bail.

She did not look towards Mrs Rankin's family as she walked from the court building.

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