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Shockingly short sentence for a nasty, murky crime

What price a man's life? Is a jail sentence of three years enough to atone for killing an old age pensioner? Most people, I would wager, will find this period behind bars shockingly short.

Yesterday Margaret Henderson-McCarroll, a 31 year-old mother of two, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Eddie Girvan, a 67-year-old retired plumber, on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

It was a squalid, lurid case. Police officers found Mr Girvan bound, gagged and stabbed in his Greenisland home.

As Mr Justice Treacy told the court, "this was an horrific crime and the deceased must have suffered terribly".

It emerged that Henderson-McCarroll had 100 previous criminal convictions which included offences of robbery, theft and assault. Apparently, in a number of these attacks, she had bitten, punched and head butted some of her victims, who included children, elderly men, young women and adult men.

And yet this vicious woman receives three years in jail, with a further three years on licence. The actual prison time served, in reality, will in all likelihood be much less. How is Henderson-McCarroll getting away with it?

Part of the problem is the issue of sentencing guidelines, which can limit judges' powers to impose jail terms that seem more obviously commensurate with the gravity of crimes.

This is yet another example of the damaging hiatus caused by the collapse of Stormont. If we had a functioning government in Northern Ireland, a working legislative Assembly, then the question could at least be addressed, and potentially remedied.

As things stand, we're in limbo, with no prospect of imminent reprieve.

There's no doubt that Henderson-McCarroll has had an incredibly difficult life.

At the time of the manslaughter, she had descended into what a defence QC described as a "heroin hell" following the cot death of her infant daughter.

A consultant forensic psychiatrist reported that she showed traits of an emotionally unstable personality disorder, due to a background of violence and sexual abuse at the hands of a number of male partners.

Apparently she had known Mr Girvan for years, and he gave her money for sex with him.

Like I say, all pretty, nasty, murky stuff, and in other circumstances, you would not hesitate to call Henderson-McCarroll a victim. And so she is. But in this particular instance, she was the perpetrator.

She tied an old man up and stabbed him, supposedly in a row over cash he owed her for sex, then drove off in his car, high on heroin, while his life bled away.

The details are foul. One jab of her knife punctured Mr Girvan's lung, and it alone could have resulted in his death.

He also had a large wad of kitchen roll stuffed in his mouth and had been gagged with a tie, which could also have killed him.

The judge agreed with two consultant forensic psychologists that Henderson-McCarroll did not pose a "significant risk of serious harm to the public in the future''.

Yet there is no doubt that she's caused substantial harm in the past.

Will her short stay in prison be enough to change her ways for good?

Belfast Telegraph