A 46-year old man who was found guilty by a jury of sexually assaulting a vulnerable woman in a tent that he was living in was handed an eight-year sentence.
Paul Mawhinney was due to appear at Belfast Crown Court, and despite being brought from Maghaberry to the court for sentencing, he refused to leave the cells and was therefore absent from the dock when sentence was passed.
Mawhinney stood trial earlier this year on a total of nine charges arising from an incident in a tent which was situated on waste ground in east Belfast last March. And while the jury acquitted him on some charges and failed to reach a verdict on others, he was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault.
During sentencing, the court heard that despite the guilty verdicts, Mawhinney - whose address was given as HMP Maghaberry - still maintains that sexual contact between him and his victim in the tent was consensual and has therefore not accepted his guilt.
The court also heard that he has a previous offence for sexual offending, and has a total of 153 prior criminal convictions.
When the trial took place earlier this year, the jury heard how the victim met a man she knew only as ‘Paul’ outside the Primark/Tesco area of Belfast on the evening of March 27 last year.
Giving evidence, the victim told the court she had consumed a few drinks before coming into the city centre to buy a mobile phone. She said she knew Paul as being a beggar, that they struck up a conversation and that he said he would sell her a phone for £20. They both purchased alcohol in Tesco’s and she then handed him the money for a phone.
Mawhinney then told her he had a charger for the phone back at his tent, and that they walked from the city centre to Middlepath Street, in the Bridge End area, to his tent. When they arrived, Mawhinney went into the tent first and said he was looking for the charger before telling the woman to come in, when more alcohol was drunk.
At this point, their version of events differ. She said she was subjected to several sexual assaults, while Mawhinney claimed any sexual contact between them was consensual.
Passing sentence, Judge Gordon Kerr QC described the victim as a “vulnerable individual” and said that the incident has had an impact on her mental health.
Judge Kerr said that Mawhinney - who left school with no qualifications, who has no employment history and who has “substance abuse problems” - had not only refused to accept his guilt, but has also refused any help offered to him whilst in custody.
The Judge also revealed that he considered Mawhinney as posing a significant risk of harm to the general public.
Mawhinney was handed an eight-year sentence, and despite being eligible for release after serving half of that sentence, he will have to apply to the Parole Commission to determine whether or not he is suitable for release.
As well as an eight-year sentence, the Judge handed Mawhinney an extended two years on licence which he will serve upon his release from custody. He has also been placed on the sex offenders register for life, and was made the subject of a 15-year Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO).