Double murderer Hazel Stewart suffered a major blow in her bid for freedom yesterday when a judge ruled she has insufficient grounds to appeal her conviction for murdering her policeman husband and ex-lover's wife.
The preliminary decision was reached on a submission by the new legal team representing the 48-year-old former Sunday school teacher.
But the mother-of-two, currently in Hydebank prison in Belfast, is still to go directly to the Court of Appeal in an attempt to have her conviction quashed.
A prisoner has to seek leave to appeal from a single judge who assesses the papers submitted and either grants or refuses the application. If granted it goes to a full hearing, but even if refused there can be a fresh application to the Court of Appeal.
Lawyers for Stewart applied to a single judge for leave to appeal against conviction and sentence.
Yesterday’s decision does not represent a fatal blow in Stewart's attempt to clear her name. She can still apply directly to the Court of Appeal for leave to challenge the verdict. Any hearing is expected to be several months off.
Her solicitor, Michael McGee, said: “The judge's ruling was not unexpected. However, we are proceeding with the appeal and are confident of a positive outcome despite this minor setback.”
Mr McGee added: “The appeal process is still at an early stage and we are continuing with our assessment of the issues with a view to overturning the convictions. No date for the hearing of the appeal has been set.”
Stewart (below) was jailed for a minimum 18 years for the murders of Trevor Buchanan (32) and 31-year-old Lesley Howell.
The victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock, Co Derry, in May 1991.
Police originally believed they had died in a suicide pact after discovering their partners were |having an affair.
They had been gassed to death before their bodies were arranged to make it look like they had taken their own lives.
It took nearly two decades for the truth to emerge when Howell (52) confessed to both killings.
He pleaded guilty to the murders last year and is serving a minimum 21-years prison sentence. Howell also implicated his former lover in the plot and gave evidence against her at her trial.
In March a jury at Coleraine Crown Court found Stewart guilty on two counts of murder.
During the trial the prosecution alleged that she knew about the plan in advance and actively facilitated her husband's killing by ensuring he was drugged, and allowing Howell into her home.
She also disposed of evidence including the hosepipe used to gas their spouses, the Crown said.