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Before dawn on a chilly November day, an early-bird office worker, clutching the first coffee of the morning in a paper cup, took a short cut through a downtown alley and found a dishevelled homeless man shoving a body onto a four-wheeled trolley.

The body was that of Kathleen Hart, a 35-year-old homeless woman whose head had been smashed in with an eight-kilogram length of iron scaffolding.

Ms. Hart, estranged from her family since the age of 15, had lived on the streets of Toronto for 10 years. She and her lover, 44-year-old Martin Blackwind, usually bunked down on a hot-air grate in a lane off Yonge Street, south of the Eaton Centre.

Both were a familiar sight to shoppers and office workers who would hurry by the couple as they panhandled for quarters.

They were usually drunk. Sometimes they were fighting.

In fact, long before Mr. Blackwind bashed Ms. Hart's head in on Nov. 1, 1998, he had twice put her in the hospital, once by punching her in both eyes, and once by slitting her throat while she slept.

She refused to press charges. And although she left him more than once, she always came back.

When police officers, who were alerted by the passerby, arrived to arrest Mr. Blackwind shortly after 6 a.m., they found him drenched in blood, intoxicated and reeking of Listerine, a cheap source of alcohol.

An autopsy revealed Ms. Hart was probably asleep or unconscious when the blows rained down on her head. In any case, she offered no resistance.

Mr. Blackwind, who was charged with second-degree murder, pleaded guilty yesterday to the lesser charge of manslaughter after prosecutors concluded it would be difficult to prove his booze-addled brain could form the intent that necessary for a murder conviction.

No family or friends of either Ms. Hart or Mr. Blackwind showed up in court to see what kind of justice would be done for a slaying that was both brutal and pathetic.

Mr. Blackwind's only "friend" was his lawyer, Mavin Wong, and Ms. Hart's was Crown attorney Ann Morgan.

Addressing Mr. Justice David Watt of the Ontario Superior Court on the issue of sentencing, both lawyers agreed Mr. Blackwind has a terrible criminal record -- 37 convictions over 30 years -- with gaps only for the periods he was already in jail.

Mr. Blackwind was born into drunkenness and violence on the Sioux Village Reserve at Portage la Prairie in Manitoba. His mother and father were alcoholics, and he was often beaten before being removed from the home at the age of 6 and put in a residential school 145 kilometres away.

At 12, he was returned to the care of his mother, who had a new abusive partner and would get her son to unsnap beer bottles for them.

By 13, he was in trouble with the law and spent the next 30 years in and out of jails for robberies, assaults, sexual assaults and another slaying.

Ms. Hart was not the first woman Mr. Blackwind had killed, Ms. Morgan told Judge Watt.

In 1976, he choked another lover to death and left her live baby lying beside her body. That woman, Joanne Bohpa, had been threatening to leave him. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter that time, too, and served most of the 10-year sentence.

In the mid-seventies, a probation officer had already concluded there was no hope of rehabilitating Mr. Blackwind, who seemed incapable of stopping the abuse of alcohol that exacerbated his violent behaviour.

Yesterday, Ms. Morgan asked the judge to jail Mr. Blackwind for 18 years and to order no parole for at least half of that time.

"He's 45. He's beyond any rehabilitation, and the public must be protected," she said. "He should be incarcerated until he no longer has the energy to behave in an antisocial manner."

Ms. Wong said that to impose such a long term without parole would only ensure that Mr. Blackwind has to wait years for any treatment for his alcohol abuse.

While her recommendation of a 15-year term was not out of line with the Crown's suggestion, she said the reality of penitentiary life is that treatment programs are offered only to offenders who are nearing their release date.

A 15-year term with no restriction on parole eligibility would put that date for Mr. Blackwind at about five years from now, and improve his chances of getting help, she said.

She also asked Judge Watt to consider Mr. Blackwind's native background when deciding whether to extend his parole ineligibity.

She presented figures from a Corrections Canada report that show natives make up 15 per cent of inmates in federal penitentiaries, although native people make up only 3 per cent of the Canadian population.

"I am not, obviously, asking for a restorative justice sentence for Mr. Blackwind," she said. "[But]if the court really wants to protect society in the long term [it would recognize]that he needs treatment fast. He'll be getting out one day."

Judge Watt reserved his decision on sentencing until Feb. 28.

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