Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Only a court can decide if punishment fits the crime

Hazel Stewart

Does a double conviction for murder fit Hazel Stewart's crime? If not, does she deserve to serve a minimum of 18 years' imprisonment before being considered for parole?

These are the key questions which are likely to be addressed when Stewart's appeal is heard later this year and which surfaced in this month's Channel Four documentary, The Perfect Murder.

The infamous story of Hazel Stewart and the dentist Colin Howell, who conspired to murder their respective spouses and make the deaths appear as suicide, continues to attract public interest.

Aside from Channel Four's film, a more definitive account of the murders is about to be published in a book entitled Let This Be Our Secret written by the Ireland editor of the Press Association, Deric Henderson.

You have to turn back the pages of legal history to the 1950s to find a so-called domestic crime - the still-unsolved murder of judge's daughter and Queen's University student Patricia Curran (no relation) - which so fired media and public attention in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Hazel Stewart, as viewed from her husband David's perspective on Channel Four, is a wronged woman. Yes, she had admitted involvement with Howell in the planning of two terrible crimes. No, she had not been such a party to murder as to warrant a double conviction and, by inference, such a heavy sentence.

The documentary was conveniently timed and clearly done with the Stewart family's cooperation. The appeal against the convictions is due to be heard before Christmas. Hazel Stewart and her immediate family are trying to do all in their power to muster convincing arguments in her favour.

During the programme, David Stewart was shown flicking through copies of newspapers which reported the sordid details of what his wife and Howell did all those years ago. He is also shown throwing the papers in the kitchen bin implying that the media had somehow focused a level of disproportionate blame on his wife.

He says: "It is interesting when you read the papers... initially it seemed as if Colin Howell was at fault, but because Hazel had the audacity to plead not guilty... the blame shifted from Howell to Hazel."

Understandably, David Stewart is standing by his wife. He and her two grown-up children are doing the decent thing by her, but whatever public sympathy they may attract must be balanced against the untold agony of the relatives of the murdered couple, Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell.

Henderson tells me his book draws on recollections and interviews. Many questions remain.

Who within the wide evangelical circle to which the murderers belonged had suspicions that the deaths of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan were not suicide? Why did police at the time not mount a more robust investigation? How come no one saw through the web of lies spun by Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart?

Henderson's book should throw more light on events dating back to a time when Northern Ireland was too preoccupied with the start of the peace process to notice that a double suicide in Co Londonderry was really callous and cold-blooded murder. At this stage, two very differing views have emerged on Hazel Stewart's role. First, her husband, as quoted on Channel Four: "If she had committed the acts that a lot of people think she had committed, even if she deserved to go to prison for these acts, there would still be that sadness. But it becomes extremely difficult when you know she didn't do these things and she's there."

Secondly, the view of Judge Anthony Harte at Stewart's trial last March: "By its verdict in this case, the jury has accepted that Stewart and Howell 'were in it together' and her part in the dreadful events of the night which saw the murder of her husband and of Lesley Howell was not just that of a passive onlooker, but as an active participant, albeit to a lesser extent than Howell."

No doubt the public holds strong views, also, about the extent of Hazel Stewart's involvement. Many will say she deserved all she got.

Others - like her husband and children - may conclude that her convictions and punishment did not fit her crime. Much as seemingly everyone has an opinion, only one will count in the end for Hazel Stewart.

The court of public opinion is important, but in our society it is rightly no substitute for the judgment of a court of law.

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