Hazel Stewart murder conviction ‘should be quashed’

Hazel Stewart's guilty verdict was unsafe, her lawyers have claimed
Hazel Stewart's guilty verdict was unsafe, her lawyers have claimed

Hazel Stewart’s conviction for the murder of her policeman husband should be quashed because a jury was not properly directed on her previous good character, the Court of Appeal has heard.

Lawyers for the former Sunday school teacher claimed flawed advice which failed to mention her lack of criminal propensity rendered the guilty verdict unsafe.

Barrister Brendan Kelly QC told a panel of three senior judges in Belfast: “The absence of a proper character direction in that regard is what, we say, gives rise to the lurking doubt.”

Stewart, 52, is serving a minimum 18-year jail sentence for the double killing of Trevor Buchanan, 32, and 31-year-old Lesley Howell, the wife of her ex-lover Colin Howell.

Both victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock, Co Londonderry back in May 1991.

Police originally believed they had died in a suicide pact after discovering their partners were having an affair.

Although Howell, 56, eventually pleaded guilty to the murders in 2010 and implicated Stewart in the plot, she is mounting a second attempt to clear her name.

Dressed in jeans, a purple patterned top and thigh-length black padded coat, she was led into court by prison staff to hear the legal arguments.

She exchanged smiles with her second husband, retired police superintendent David Stewart, and children Andrew and Lisa in the public gallery.

Two of her sisters were also in court to offer their support.

Sitting across from Stewart’s family were a sister and three brothers of her murdered first husband.

In January 2013 her appeal against being convicted of Lesley Howell’s murder was dismissed.

At that stage she abandoned her challenge to being found guilty of killing Constable Buchanan.

But in court on Wednesday her lawyers sought permission to resurrect the Buchanan appeal.

They claimed the abandonment should be annulled because she was allegedly not advised by previous legal representatives that it would amount to a dismissal.

According to Mr Kelly both Stewart and her husband were told there was no arguable appeal on the Buchanan murder.

He then set out the grounds on which he argued the conviction should be overturned.

Even though Stewart made admissions in police interviews, the barrister insisted that elsewhere on the tapes she made clear her opposition to Howell’s murder plot.

By pleading not guilty and contesting the charges, despite giving no evidence at trial, a full direction on her previous good character should have been given to the jury, the court heard.

Dealing with the pressure Howell allegedly exerted over his client, Mr Kelly told Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Gillen and Lord Justice Weatherup: “The case was put on the basis that she was willing to participate.

“Her issue was that in so far as she did, she was overborne, according to the interview, and in any event she wasn’t party to the murder.”

But Ciaran Murphy QC, for the prosecution, emphasised the lies Stewart told at the time of the original police investigation into the killings and subsequent inquests.

“Only a defendant with an entirely good character is entitled to a full good character direction,” he said.

Mr Murphy accepted it would have been “preferable” if the trial judge had dealt with her lack of propensity, but questioned if it would have had any impact.

“It would have been perverse or absurd to suggest the jury could reject the admissions and the extent of those admissions,” he added.

“Those admissions themselves place in her in direct involvement in the murder of her husband.”

Following arguments Sir Declan confirmed a decision was being reserved on both the abandonment of the original appeal and the fresh grounds of challenge.

He said: “We will want to reflect on the submissions and give our judgment on this as soon as we can.”

Meanwhile, Stewart’s lawyers are continuing with separate attempts to have the Criminal Cases Review Commission refer her conviction for killing Lesley Howell back to the Court of Appeal.