A convicted criminal who robbed an elderly woman in Belfast City Centre was jailed for 18 months on Friday after a judge described his attack as “nasty’’.
Thomas James Coleman, 22, of no fixed address, was only out of prison a few days when he wrenched Margaret Black’s handbag from her, pulling her to the ground and fracturing a bone in her upper body, a judge was told.
But Belfast Crown Court heard that despite the attack, the widowed 84-year-old victim “felt sorry’’ for Coleman following the street mugging last year.
Prosecution lawyer Rosemary Walsh told the court that Mrs Black was walking along Upper Queen Street on August 30, 2014 after she had finished her shopping in the city centre.
“She was carrying her handbag and the strap was wound around her fingers when she felt a considerable pull on her arm. She felt she was being pushed and pulled, making her feel disorientated and then she fell to the ground with a ‘tremendous bang’ on her left side and shoulder,’’ said the prosecutor.
Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland watched a video of the incident which had been captured on CCTV. Ms Walsh said it showed Mrs Black walking across Upper Queen Street with her handbags and shopping bags.
“The figure who is walking closely behind her is that of the defendant Thomas Coleman.’’
As the elderly woman reached the pavement, Coleman was seen on the footage wrenching off her handbag, pulling Mrs Clarke “forcefully’’ to the ground and then fleeing on foot.
Ms Walsh said: “Members of the public came to her assistance and the incident was witnessed by a bus driver who gave chase to the suspect into Wellington Place.
“He alerted a jogger who was coming the opposite direction to Coleman and the jogger rugby tackled Coleman to the ground. They both restrained him until police were flagged down.’’
The court was told Mrs Black was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital where she spent a week being treated for a fractured neck of the humerus in her shoulder.
She also spent a number of weeks in Musgrave Park Hospital but because of the seriousness of her injuries, she had to give up her two-storey rented home as now needed the assistance of a walking frame and could no longer climb the stairs to the bathroom.
“She has now lost her independent living as a result of this robbery. Following the incident she felt very tearful and depressed because she could hardly move her left side or arm. She also found it difficult getting to sleep at night, managing only three hours.’’
During police interviews, Coleman said that he got £80 on benefits and “blew it in the bookies’’ that morning and decided to rob the woman of her handbag but didn’t mean to injure her.
The court heard that Coleman had written a letter from his jail cell expressing his remorse for his actions which was subsequently passed on to Mrs Black.
Added Ms Walsh: “Mrs Black says that she feels sorry for him and his family. She said he was a young man and this was a terrible start for him to have this on his record.’’
Although Coleman had no previous convictions for robbery, the prosecution lawyer told the court he had convictions for dishonesty offences.
“In fact, at the time of the commission of this offence, he was just out of prison,’’ she told Belfast Crown Court.
Defence barrister Des Fahy told the court that Coleman had a history of alcohol and substance abuse, adding: “My client from the outset has expressed his genuine remorse and regret for his actions.
“He has described his behaviour as ‘shameful and bad’ and the incident has been playing on his mind. He has been haunted by what he did and there is certainly a significant degree of shame for the nasty circumstances of this offence.’’
Judge David McFarland described the robbery as a “nasty offence on an elderly and vulnerable woman’’ which resulted in Mrs Black sustaining “quite serious injuries, including a fracture of her humerus’’.
He said he regarded this as an aggravating factor along with Coleman’s extensive criminal record and said the offence required an immediate custodial sentence.
The judge added: “Mrs Black has expressed sympathy for you which is very admirable in all the circumstances.’’
The Belfast Recorder said had the case gone to trial, the appropriate sentence after conviction would have been one of four-and-a-half years.
However, the judge said in the light of Coleman’s guilty plea, the sentence would be three years, with 18 months to be spent in custody and a further 18 months on licence following his release.
“I am not going to make a compensation order because I don’t believe you have the means to pay it,’’ added Judge McFarland.