Belfast Telegraph

Hazel Stewart's court appeal thrown out in five minutes flat

By Alan Erwin

Double killer Hazel Stewart has returned to prison to complete her 18-year sentence after her appeal was dismissed in as little as five minutes.

The former Sunday school teacher failed in a bid to overturn her conviction for the murder of ex-lover Colin Howell's wife.

The Court of Appeal ruled there was no doubt over the verdict that she killed Lesley Howell.

With Stewart having earlier abandoned her challenge to also being found guilty of murdering her policeman husband Trevor Buchanan, she was handcuffed and returned to prison to continue her minimum 18-year jail sentence.

The 49-year-old mother-of-two showed no emotion as senior judges announced their decision following a half-day hearing in Belfast on Monday.

Lord Justice Higgins, sitting with Lord Justices Girvan and Coghlin, said: “We have concluded that the application for leave to appeal should be refused.

“We have no reason to doubt the safety of this conviction.”

Full reasons for the decision — which was delivered after a five- minute adjournment by the judges — will be given at a later date.

In March 2011 a jury at Coleraine Crown Court found Stewart guilty of murdering Constable Buchanan (32) and 31-year-old Lesley Howell.

The victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock, Co Londonderry, in May 1991.

Police originally believed they had died in a suicide pact after discovering that their partners were having an affair.

They were, in fact, murdered before their bodies were arranged to make it look like they had taken their own lives.

It was nearly two decades later when Howell (52) suddenly confessed to both killings.

He pleaded guilty to the murders in 2010 and is serving a minimum of 21 years in prison. Howell also implicated his former lover in the plot and gave evidence against her at her trial.

During the trial, the prosecution alleged 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, it was claimed.

Stewart originally planned to challenge the verdict that she was guilty of both murders as part of a joint enterprise.

But, after she was brought from jail into a courtroom packed with members of the two families, her barrister confirmed she was no longer appealing the conviction for killing her husband.

But Jim Gallagher QC claimed there was no evidence she either aided in or knew in advance that the dentist was planning that killing.

He argued that Stewart only became aware of Lesley Howell's murder when her lover arrived at her house with the victim's body in his car.

The lawyer said: “In respect of the death of Lesley Howell, there was no actus reus (guilty act) on the part of the appellant.”

Mr Gallagher set out how Stewart maintained throughout police questioning that she never agreed to Howell's plan to kill both spouses and make it look like a double suicide.

Turning to the challenge to being found guilty of Lesley Howell's murder, he said: “There's no evidence that this appellant had any prior knowledge of Howell's intention to kill his wife on that particular night.

“It's particularly significant that there's no evidence of this appellant giving Howell any assistance, or indeed encouragement, in respect of the killing of his wife on that particular night.”

But the court ruled in favour of prosecution counsel that the conviction was safe.

Following a five-minute private consultation, Lord Justice Higgins announced the decision, saying the judges will provide reasons for their judgment at a later date.

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