Editor's Viewpoint: Blatant blunders cannot be excused
There could not be a more damning verdict on the police investigation in the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Leslie Howell, the spouses of notorious killers Hazel Stewart and Colin Howell.
A Police Ombudsman's report branded the original police probe as a case study on how not to conduct an investigation and suggested that it should be used as a teaching model throughout the world.
The original finding that Trevor and Leslie had committed suicide flew in the face of very obvious clues which should have aroused the suspicions of police officers. Instead they were ignored and the real killers, Stewart and Howell, were allowed to go free for 20 years. Indeed they would still be free today if Howell had not walked into a police station and confessed to the killings and implicated Stewart. Both are now serving life sentences after sensational court appearances.
So blatant were the blunders that they cannot be excused. Admittedly police were under great pressure investigating terrorist crimes when this double murder was committed but the clues were so evident and so abundant that even inexperienced officers should have been able to sense that something was wrong about the staged suicide scene. The end result was not just that killers escaped justice for two decades, but the victims' families had to relive their deaths twice with all the attendant grief that caused.
Hopefully such a catalogue of errors could not happen now. The new PSNI has a different focus from the old RUC. There is some terrorist activity to contend with, but the force is now engaged in community policing to a greater degree and probably in receipt of greater public support and flow of information than in the past. The botched Buchanan and Howell investigation was a master class in how policing can fail unless it focuses on the basics of sifting clues and weighing evidence and every police officer should remember that lesson no matter what scale of crime they are investigating.