Hazel Stewart: Two years in jail, but it looked like she’d just been in the spa
Life behind bars appears to agree with double killer Hazel Stewart.
Looking fresh, stylish and well groomed, the 49-year-old former Sunday school teacher marched confidently into the Court of Appeal in Belfast on Monday for a final chance to overturn her conviction.
Once a gym fanatic, she still looked fit and trim, dressed fashionably in a navy quilted jacket belted tightly over a grey polo neck jumper, fitted navy trousers and calf-length brown boots.
With her neat shoulder-length hair now dyed a darker shade of blonde, eyebrows groomed, a hint of foundation on her face, a slight colouring of mascara on her eyelashes and a dab of gloss on her lips, she looked like a woman who had just left a day spa — not one who had spent the past two years in prison.
But looking closer, there was a hardness to the mother-of-two that had not been visible before.
Gone was the meek, terrified woman who would bury her head in her second husband’s shoulder and desperately clutch onto his arm during her first court appearances.
Or the woman who used to shake with nerves, her head bowed timidly as she sat in the dock during her trial in Coleraine courthouse.
Once the door closed behind her at the female prison at Hydebank Wood in March 2011 — after being convicted, along with her former lover Colin Howell, of murdering her husband and Howell’s wife in 1991 — she has had to stand on her own two feet among some of Northern Ireland’s most dangerous female convicts.
And the woman who claims to be a devoted Christian seems to have toughened up to survive in an environment that was once so alien to her.
Or maybe that toughness was there all along, and is what helped her live with her shocking secret for more than two decades.
Throughout most of her two-and-a-half-hour appeal hearing on Monday she sat with her brow furrowed and her eyes focused on the wall straight ahead.
The only time her features softened was when she shared glances and a few whispered words with her son and daughter from her marriage to her murdered police officer husband, Trevor Buchanan.
And when — for the first time in more than 20 years of denial — she publicly admitted on Monday that she was responsible for the murder of their father, her shoulders visibly relaxed.
Her lawyer Jim Gallagher QC told the court that Stewart was no longer going to appeal her conviction for murdering her husband, which was based on the grounds that she had “facilitated, assisted and encouraged (her husband’s murder) to occur”.
As her lawyer spoke she looked towards her two children and smiled at them weakly. They nodded and smiled supportively back at her.
Mr Gallagher said, however, that Stewart was still contesting her conviction for the murder of Howell’s wife Lesley.
He claimed there was no evidence she either aided in or knew in advance that Howell was planning that killing.
But — to the annoyance of her son Andrew and daughter Lisa, who shook their heads angrily — Crown counsel Ciaran Murphy QC said that their mother had been “a willing participant” with Colin Howell in a “monstrous” joint plan to murder their spouses.
Sitting beside Stewart’s two children in the public gallery her second husband, retired police officer David Stewart, became increasingly agitated throughout Mr Murphy’s submissions.
He passed a note to his wife’s defence team, and then on another occasion he approached the defence barrister at the bench and whispered to him.
Many in the court had been expecting the three appeal judges to reserve their judgment on Monday.
There was a look of surprise among those gathered in the court when the judges announced they were going to rise for a few minutes.
For the first time that morning Stewart looked slightly nervous. Her children leant over a bench to speak with her and her husband mouthed the words: “You’re going to be okay.”
She did not look towards her murdered husband’s family, sitting alongside Howell’s daughter Lauren.
It took little more than five minutes for the three judges to return to the court with their decision.
A slight flicker of disappointment touched Stewart’s face when Lord Justice Higgins said they rejected the application for appeal. But, quickly composing herself, she appeared calmly resigned to her fate. So, too, did her children.
Their silent acceptance of the judges’ ruling was in stark contrast to emotional scenes within Coleraine courthouse on the day their mother was convicted.
That day they had sobbed loudly and begged the jury to reconsider, while their mother wept at their distress.
This time they calmly rose and walked to the edge of the public gallery to share a few private words with their mother as she was being led away.
Stewart tucked her hair behind her ear, shared a smile and a few hurried whispers with them, and then walked out of the courtroom without a glance behind her.