Karen Walsh, aged 45, launched a frenzied attack on her elderly neighbour on Christmas Day 2008, pulling clumps of hair from her head and inflicting head injuries and broken ribs.
A crown of thorns left a distinctive bruise on her chin. She then sexually assaulted Maire Rankin, 81, before fleeing from the house next door to her own home in Newry, Co Down.
A jury at Belfast Crown Court found her guilty with a unanimous verdict after retiring for under two hours at the end of the trial.
Mr Justice Anthony Hart warned her she would serve a lengthy sentence.
“Whatever happened on that night, this was a brutal attack on an elderly and defenceless woman,” he said.
The public gallery was silent as Walsh was led away. Ashen-faced, she turned and told the judge: “I am totally innocent.”
Ms Rankin was found in her Dublin Road home by a relative. Walsh admitted being in the house but claimed she went earlier in the evening of Christmas Eve to bring Ms Rankin a present and when she left, her neighbour was alive.
A detective told the trial she spoke to Karen Walsh on Christmas morning when she discovered she had been with the victim the previous evening.
She said Walsh asked whether Ms Rankin had been beaten and whether the door of her house had been open.
Another police officer told the court that when she was arrested on December 27, 2008, the accused had replied: “I can’t believe this. It is bizarre.”
The court heard that Walsh visited the victim to give her a bottle of vodka. Items recovered at the scene included an almost empty litre bottle of vodka. It was tested for DNA and produced a mixed profile, but the major contributor was the accused.
A DNA expert also told the murder trial that the chances of DNA on the victim’s chin coming from someone other than the killer was one in a billion. DNA which could have come from the accused was found on the pensioner’s breasts and on the bottom of the crucifix.
According to Northern Ireland’s state pathologist, Ms Rankin had bruising on her chin consistent with a crown of thorns, like that on Jesus’s head.
Professor Jack Crane said considerable force had been used to cause extensive bruising to the face and scalp and that Ms Rankin had been subjected to a series of punches or blows with a blunt instrument.
Ms Rankin also suffered 15 broken ribs, which Prof Crane said may have been caused after death.
He gave evidence of other internal bruising and bleeding which he said indicated some form of sexual assault.
THE victim’s daughter Emily Rankin said: “She had the right to feel secure in her own home but because of her trusting nature and kindness, she was subjectedto a frenzied assault and a horrific murder.
“She died alone and frightened.”
Ms Rankin, the eldest daughter of the victim, said her mother was a kind and caring person who spent her life helping people.
“She was savagely and persistently beaten with a crucifix, clumps of hair were violently pulled out by the roots, she was left with head injuries and broken ribs before being subjected to the ultimate defilement of her body,” she said.
PSNI Detective Inspector John Caldwell paid tribute to the victim’s family.
“They have lost Maire’s company because of the terrible and depraved action of someone they trusted as a neighbour,” he said.
He added that she deserved to live in safety.
“For the last three years Karen Walsh has told lies. Today the jury saw through the lies and convicted her of murder,” he said.