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Killers Howell and Stewart are white and rich - they'd have dodged death penalty in the US

Jordanstown man Gary Proctor, now a leading lawyer across the pond, on the murder case that has gripped America

By Claire McNeilly

Published 15/06/2016

Queen’s University grad Gary Proctor in Belfast
Queen’s University grad Gary Proctor in Belfast
Hazel Stewart
Colin Howell, with his American second wife Kyle and their child Finn
Lesley Howell
Trevor Buchanan

Gary Proctor is in the business of saving lives. But the Jordanstown man isn't a doctor, surgeon, paramedic or firefighter. And the lives he saves belong to people who have committed some of the most heinous crimes that we can imagine.

One of his clients raped his female victim before cutting her throat and gouging her eyes out. Another shot a woman dead in front of her two young grandchildren.

Hazel Stewart and her husband Trevor Buchanan on their wedding day
Hazel Stewart and her husband Trevor Buchanan on their wedding day
Hazel Stewart leaving court during her trial with her husband David and children Lisa and Andrew
Hazel Stewart with her husband David Stewart outside court

A third, already incarcerated for other offences, repeatedly stabbed a prison officer to death.

These people have three things in common: they committed a capital crime, they were sentenced to death for it, and they turned to Gary Proctor - now one of the most celebrated Death Row lawyers in the United States - as their last throw of the dice.

The Queen's University graduate has a job description guaranteed to stop any conversation in its tracks.

But whatever you think of the 43-year-old's career of choice, rest assured that he's proud of what he does.

He believes everybody - even those people the courts determine have relinquished their right to keep on breathing - are entitled to the best possible representation.

He believes in putting up a compelling argument for a client to be spared the ultimate punishment - lethal injection, in most cases - and, with a success rate higher than 90%, the former Belfast High pupil is clearly very good at what he does.

Not only that, but he doesn't believe "evil" actually exists ("only degrees of irrationality and mental illness") and admits to forging bonds with most of his clients, to unrelenting rage and sleepless nights when he fails them, and to an unshakeable belief that, even at the 11th hour, redemption can be found for people whom others believe should rot in Hell with immediate effect.

Whilst there isn't a market for his specialist skills in the UK - capital punishment for murder was abolished and replaced with life imprisonment in 1965 in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland - he's pretty busy in the US, where 31 states still have the death penalty as an option.

But as a Northern Ireland native - and a man with a day-to-day insight into the minds of murderers - Gary admits to a keen interest in the now world-famous case of illicit lovers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart.

The lovers killed their respective spouses, Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan, and faked the victims' suicides - an apparently perfect crime until Howell sensationally confessed two decades later.

He adds that Americans who have seen the resultant TV drama, The Secret, starring James Nesbitt and Genevieve O'Reilly, are also fascinated by a crime that, even by US standards, is highly unusual.

And although he has watched the series himself, Gary believes it was aired a little too soon after the convictions.

"The mother of a friend of mine from Coleraine went to the same church as Lesley Howell," he said.

"One part of me certainly thought the show seemed like rubbing on a wound that hadn't closed yet. It just seemed so close to the proximity of the event. If I was one of Colin Howell's or Hazel Stewart's children, to see what mum and dad did on deceased dad and deceased mum... well, it seems very close in time."

Gary, who is married to Theresa (44), an American social worker with whom he has  seven-year-old twin boys Sammy and Louie, says he hasn't come across "anything remotely similar" in the States.

"The reason so many people are talking about it is because it's so out of the norm - it's so remarkable," he said.

"Ninety-nine murders out of 100 have more to do with the availability of firearms than they do about a motive to rekindle romances.

"It's a spur of the moment thing, there's very little time for reflection. If they'd had time for reflection, it wouldn't have happened. What surprised me with the Howell-Stewart case is that murders with such premeditation by persons who appear not to be mentally ill or under the influence of narcotics are, in my experience, shockingly rare.

"In this case, Howell seems to have been driven by his faith. Contrary to popular opinion, most people that commit crimes do not protest their innocence for very long.

"Whether through conscience or spirituality or a desire to atone, most perpetrators of horrific acts acknowledge them and seek to make amends.

"I've had numerous clients attempt to apologise to victims' families. I have seen many readily accept life sentences in the full knowledge that they should spend the rest of their lives in prison for the hurt they have caused."

Referring to Howell (57), Gary - a winner of the prestigious John Adams Award for his work in the US courts - added: "No one does anything like that without there being something really wrong under their bonnet."

The dentist's crimes only surfaced when he confided in his second wife, Kyle Jorgensen, a New Yorker who had fled America after a violent three-year marriage to her first husband.

The couple, who married within five months, met at a Bible study in 1996 after the then mother-of -two joined a local Baptist church in Castlerock.

It was only two years later when the youngest of their five children, Erik, was seven months old, that the lay preacher suddenly confessed.

He told Kyle, now 50, he had been unfaithful to his first wife and that he had murdered her.

He then admitted to killing the policeman husband of his mistress and putting their bodies together to make it look like a suicide pact.

He also told her that he had sexually assaulted his female patients while they were sedated.

She finally forced Howell to confess everything to church elders and police in January 2009 - after a decade of being bullied and blackmailed into staying silent for the sake of their children, while he threatened to kill himself.

He is now serving a minimum 21 years in jail after admitting gassing 31-year-old mum-of-four Lesley and Trevor (32), a father-of-two.

His former lover and Sunday School teacher Stewart (53), who remarried after their split, got 18 years for her part in the notorious murders. Kyle then returned to the US to rebuild her life in Sanibel Island, Florida, where she is bringing up her five children by Howell.

The former waitress was investigated by the PSNI for four years over the decade-long secrets she kept, but she was not charged - and that's something Gary stands by.

"I know of no law on either side of the Atlantic that makes it a crime to keep a secret," he said.

"Indeed, in the US there are statutes that prohibit one spouse from testifying to things they are told in private, absent the other spouse's permission, such is the sanctity of marriage."

So, would Howell and Stewart have faced the death penalty in certain US states had their crime been committed there?

"Unlikely," Gary replied. "First of all they're both white - that's a good start in large parts of the United States. And second of all, at least they have some money.

"The fact that they have money would make it unlikely that they would go to Death Row. I would bet a lot of money they'd never have to worry about the ultimate punishment."

In America, Gary has built his reputation on standing up for those he believes have been failed by the system.

The champion of pro-life issues is outraged by what he believes are loaded verdicts against disadvantaged people and "the grim, macabre, revolting, staged spectacle" of an execution.

He also insists that there is no difference in defending someone accused of a serious crime and one that has already been convicted.

"If it was you, if it was someone you cared about, you would want them to be treated exactly the same," he said.

"When you really understand the way their brain works, the way their family works, the way their personality works, there's not a huge degree of difference.

"Everyone deserves someone in their corner to try and put their best foot forward. It matters to me.

"When you take them out of that atmosphere, when you take them away from the drugs they were using, when you get them medication for the underlying mental illness - and there's always an underlying mental illness...

"A decade on (from the crime), no one is the same person. They're clean and sober and have a support network, and a set of rules that they understand and can abide by. They pose no danger to anyone."

Gary isn't alone when it comes to bonding with inmates convicted of despicable offences.

His office in Baltimore - one of the world's most violent cities - is a showcase for presents made for him by the damned and the condemned.

"In many cases it absolutely is a friendship with these people," he said. "The guards are the same. You see them crying at executions. You see wardens moved to tears. It doesn't matter who they are or what they've done. If you're around someone often enough it's going to rub off."

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