By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A Chicago man was sentenced on Thursday to 90 years in prison for the brutal beating of an exchange student from Northern Ireland that left her unable to walk or speak, in a case that focused attention on violence in the third-largest U.S. city.
Heriberto Viramontes, 35, was convicted last year of bashing two women over the head with a wooden bat before robbing them in April 2010, including Natasha McShane, then a 23-year-old graduate student from Northern Ireland.
The women had been headed home from a night of dancing and celebrating when Viramontes attacked them under a viaduct in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood.
"Their only sin was believing it was safe to walk four or five blocks in the city of Chicago," Circuit Court Judge Jorge Alonso said during the three-hour sentencing hearing.
The beating also left the second woman, Stacy Jurich, with ongoing health problems including seizures.
"I feel, taste and smell the blood still rushing out of my head," Jurich said during the hearing. "I wish the sounds of the bat breaking my head open would go away, but they won't."
The attack brought international attention to the problem of violent crime in Chicago and stirred Chicago's large Irish-American community, which held fundraisers on McShane's behalf.
McShane, an academically gifted graduate student in urban planning, is just learning again how to walk and put a few words together, her mother Sheila said during the sentencing.
"A swing of a bat is what robbed our beautiful daughter and sister of her future," said Sheila, reading a statement on behalf of her family.
Viramontes' relatives, including his mother and two sisters, asked the judge to show leniency. They said Viramontes had a difficult childhood, which included the murder of his father, learning disabilities and the death of one of his twin children when the babies were born prematurely.
Viramontes was convicted by a jury last October of two counts of attempted murder, among other felony counts. He will be required to serve at least 76-1/2 years in prison.
During the trial, Jurich testified against Viramontes, as did Marcy Cruz, a former stripper who confessed to driving the getaway van for Viramontes. Cruz was sentenced to 22 years in prison under a plea agreement, prosecutors said.
(Writing by Brendan O'Brien, Editing by G Crosse, Eric Walsh and Andrew Hay)