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Could double murderer Hazel Stewart walk free? Double act killers thrown lifeline after court rules convictions could be unsafe

Move ‘will see glut of appeals from murderers guilty under joint enterprise law’

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 19/02/2016

Convicted murderer Hazel Stewart has been given fresh hope of freedom
Convicted murderer Hazel Stewart has been given fresh hope of freedom
Colin Howell
Hazel Stewart
Thomas Devlin
Stephen Lawrence

A landmark court ruling could allow one of Northern Ireland's most notorious killers to challenge her conviction.

Double murderer Hazel Stewart was convicted under the controversial 'joint enterprise' law.

Yesterday the UK's highest court said the law may have been wrongly interpreted by judges for 30 years.

The decision could pave the way for hundreds of prisoners to seek appeals.

They include Stewart, convicted in 2011 of murdering her husband Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell in a joint enterprise with her ex-lover Colin Howell.

Nigel Brown, jailed in 2010 for the sectarian killing of schoolboy Thomas Devlin, could also challenge his conviction.

Last night, Thomas's mother Penny Holloway said she believed Brown's conviction was sound.

"We are quite satisfied that the decision of the jury and the Court of Appeal was the right one," she said.

The law on joint enterprise can result in people being convicted even if they did not strike the blow.

Defendants have been convicted on the basis that they "could" have foreseen violent acts by their associates. Judges have now ruled it was wrong to treat "foresight" as a sufficient test.

Thomas Devlin
Thomas Devlin
Stephen Lawrence
Colin Howell

Their decision could have huge ramifications.

Belfast solicitor Patrick Madden said "a substantial number" of people in Northern Ireland could seek to overturn their convictions.

"This momentous decision corrects the 30-year-old error in the law on criminal joint enterprise," he said. "We have a substantial number of clients who have passed through the criminal courts over the last 30 years, having mistakenly served very lengthy sentences, who will now look to appeal their convictions.

"This correction has been a long time coming and is a sea change in the law.

"There are still many defendants currently before the courts who can now hope to have their cases ending with a much fairer and proportionate outcome."

Stewart, a former Sunday school teacher, was jailed for a minimum of 18 years in 2011.

She was found guilty of the murders of Mr Buchanan and Mrs Howell as part of a joint enterprise with Howell.

Their bodies were found in Castlerock in 1991 in a case which police initially treated as suicide.

Brown, meanwhile, was found guilty of murdering Thomas Devlin in 2005 on the basis of a joint enterprise with Gary Taylor.

The 15-year-old was knifed to death near his north Belfast home.

Brown, from Whitewell Road in the city, and Taylor, of Mountcollyer Avenue, were both found guilty of murder.

Ms Holloway said: "The decision is out there from the Supreme Court and anyone is free to make an appeal if they perceive that it could apply to them.

"We've always said that the course of law is the right way to deal with it, and we would have to accept that, if he wanted to appeal, he clearly would have the right to do that."

She added: "It's about whether foresight equals intent, and they say no it doesn't, but foresight can be evidence of intent. I think the case that was taken both in the court and the appeal court was quite robust in this regard.

"The decision of the court was that both of the participants were involved in the attack on Thomas and his friends, and both had weapons with them.

"The joint enterprise seems to me not to be solely based on the issue of foresight in Thomas's case, as it was in the case before the Supreme Court."

Meanwhile, the mother of a convicted killer said she hoped the ruling could pave the way for an appeal.

Mark Kincaid was one of three men convicted under joint enterprise of murdering David Hamilton in east Belfast in 2004.

Kincaid denied being at the scene, but police found his partial thumb print on a fragment of glass.

He has consistently denied having any role in Mr Hamilton's death. His mother, Ellen, said she has spoken to the family's solicitors about an appeal and is "getting things in motion".

The ruling came after a panel of five Supreme Court judges considered the case of Ameen Jogee. He was convicted under joint enterprise of the murder of former Leicestershire police officer Paul Fyfe in 2011.

The court heard that Jogee had "egged on" his friend Mohammed Hirsi, who stabbed Mr Fyfe in the heart. Both men received life sentences for murder.

Jogee had argued he was not inside the house when the incident took place, and could not have foreseen what his friend intended to do. Delivering the judgement, Lord Neuberger said it was wrong to treat "foresight" as a sufficient test to convict someone of murder.

Those convicted under joint enterprise can be classed as a secondary party who assists or encourages the main perpetrator in committing the act of killing.

It is also used in cases where a victim dies as a result of an attack by more than one person and it is not clear which of them caused the fatal injury.

The law was used to convict the killers of Stephen Lawrence.

The 18-year-old was stabbed to death by a gang in a racially motivated murder in Eltham, south-east London. In another well-known case, three teenagers were jailed for life in 2008 for the murder of Garry Newlove.

Mr Newlove was attacked in front of his daughters after he confronted a group outside his house in Warrington.

The case of Shauna Hoare, convicted with her boyfriend Nathan Matthews of killing teenager Becky Watts, could be affected.

Hoare claimed she knew Matthews wanted to kidnap Becky to have sex with her but was not with him when he throttled her, although she was in the house.

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