A jury has been asked to decide if former Sunday school teacher Hazel Stewart entered into a joint enterprise with her ex-lover Colin Howell to murder their spouses two decades ago.
Judge Mr Justice Hart told the jury of nine men and three women at Coleraine courthouse that the murders of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell were carried out by Howell — but it is now up to them to decide what part the 48-year-old mother-of-two played.
He said that the legal definition of a joint enterprise between Stewart and Howell did not mean that Stewart had to commit the murders, only that she was part of the plan to carry them out.
“The word plan does not mean there had to be formal agreement about what's to be done, a plan could be made on the spur of moment, with a nod, wink or knowing look,” he said.
“Put simply, the question for you is were they in it together?”
He advised the jury that it was not there to judge the Hazel Stewart who was sitting in the dock, but the Hazel Stewart of 20 years ago who knew of a plan to kill her husband and Howell’s wife, but did nothing to stop it.
Stewart denies murdering her husband and Mrs Howell. Their bodies were discovered in a fume-filled car in Castlerock in May 1991. Howell was last year jailed for 21 years after pleading guilty to both murders.
Stewart’s barrister Paul Ramsey QC told the court yesterday that on the night of the murders Howell was “superhuman” and had the strength of three men.
“She let him in. She was afraid for her and her children. With good reason she was scared. He told police there was a point of no return,” he said.
“He was committed. He was on a mission. He had the strength of three men. That night he was superhuman.
“He had to dress Trevor, carry him unaided to the car. He got no assistance from Hazel Stewart. She didn’t even open a door for him. He got Trevor’s body from the boot on his own. It took the strength of three men.”
He added: “Howell was ready for whatever happened. There was no Plan B. He was committed and focused. It was all ad hoc. What if Andrew and Lisa (Stewart’s two children) came out? Howell told police, ‘well the game would have been up’.
“Do you really believe that? Was he really going to put his hands up?
“How could she have done anything without endangering her life and her children. In Colin Howell’s world there are no rules, no parameters, no boundaries. He is just going to do what he wants to do and there’s no stopping him.”
Mr Ramsey warned the court to regard Howell’s evidence against Stewart “with extreme caution”.
“He is a confident and fluent liar. He can seamlessly weave fact and fiction together.
“He is controlling, manipulative and devious. He ignores the boundaries of the law and the church. He craves approval.
“Giving evidence, was this a platform for his rehabilitation or is this revenge because she (Stewart) turned him down? Do not bother asking him. He will have plenty to say about it, but it won’t be the truth.”
He said the jury must not compound the tragedy of the murders with a miscarriage of justice.
“Hazel Stewart is a flawed woman with weaknesses and failings, which she has acknowledged. It is not her fault that the prosecution have not charged her with what she has done,” he said.
“They have charged her with joint enterprise, double murder. The evidence doesn’t support that. These murders were devised, executed and carried out by a ruthless man who had passed the point of no return.”