Of all the words Hazel Stewart uttered in her interview — some so important to get out that she repeated whole phrases several times over for emphasis — the one that was missing was “Sorry”.
That five-letter utterance would always be too small for the heinous crimes that she committed with lover Colin Howell, though just saying it would have been a start.
But no. With Stewart, there’s only one topic of conversation: herself and how she’s been wronged by Howell, the justice system and public opinion.
Apart from namechecking her victims several times, Stewart had nothing to say about them. Here’s just a little of what she left out.
Stewart’s then husband Trevor Buchanan was a popular, hard-working RUC officer, who she put through the emotional wringer. The wife he worshipped was cheating on him with a member of their Baptist church. His humiliation was public. Despite it all, this kind, devoted dad-of-two was prepared to patch up the marriage.
If he’d walked out, like many men would have, he’d probably be alive today. He wouldn’t have been lying in bed in Coleraine that evening in 1991 drugged by the sedative Stewart crushed into the tuna roll she gave him before her dentist lover arrived to finish him off.
Lesley Howell had been a nurse devoted to caring for people. When this harassed mum-of-four realised her husband was having an affair, she lost weight, bought new clothes and had her hair restyled in a bid to woo him back. She too felt crushed and mortified as her life crumbled around her.
Stewart could have told us how she felt when Howell arrived at her home with Lesley’s body in his car boot, having just murdered her. Or what went through her mind as she watched him feed a hosepipe attached to his car exhaust down the hall to hold to Trevor’s sleeping face.
How she listened outside the bedroom when Trevor woke and tried to fight off Howell but was violently overpowered and killed. How she meticulously disposed of incriminating evidence — burning the hosepipe, washing bedclothes and hoovering while Howell drove off with the bodies to stage the “suicide pact” ruse.
When the deeply flawed police investigation deemed that theory plausible, she got on with her life. Did she ever have flashbacks? Was she consumed with guilt? Think she’d got away with it?
Instead, we got Stewart, without an iota of self-awareness, crassly comforting herself that she is “still a mother and a wife and a grandmother and I have family and not one person has left or moved away”.
What must her late husband’s heartbroken family make of that? Trevor never got to see his children grow up or delight in grandchildren. Nor did poor Lesley, the dead mother whose presence was only felt by its absence at all those birthdays, graduations, weddings.
There have been more than 30 years each of unlived lives for Trevor and Lesley, dead at 32 and 31 respectively. Three decades of being denied the simple joys of everyday life.
By comparison Stewart has served just 10 years in Hydebank. She’s been put away for her crimes, but she’s never gone away. As so often with our justice system, her legal moves mean she’s a constant reminder for the families of Trevor and Lesley of what they lost.
Of course she’s entitled to avail of the processes of the law, but such repeated efforts always directly impact those already deeply hurt by her murderous actions.
Now, by casting herself as a victim of Howell’s “coercive control”, Stewart has lit upon a shiny 21st century defence for a grim 20th century murder. Claiming that Howell “never got what I got”, she says she was dealt with more harshly because she was a woman and a Christian. But she’s far from being a feminist martyr. There’s been no sexism in how she’s been treated.
Colin Howell is a monster, but if some take a marginally more benign view of him rather than her, it’s because he finally cracked and confessed.
Stewart has had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards the truth. If he’d kept quiet, Stewart would have carried on enjoying what had become a very good life. The dead and their relatives would never have got justice.
Howell accepts his punishment. Stewart doesn’t want to do another day in jail. Ludicrously, she suggests her blonde hair worked against her. Make no mistake, being a brunette, redhead or grey-haired wouldn’t have got her off that double murder charge. Even those who have carried out terrible acts can change. If prison doesn’t hold out the prospect of rehabilitation and redemption then there’s no point. Very few people are all good or all bad.
True, Stewart cast herself as a mentor to younger inmates. Who knows? Maybe she is. But even that felt rather self-serving, especially since so many other topics of conversation seemed off-limits.
Stewart fascinates in a way Howell doesn’t. Despite her role in robbing them of their dad, her children stand by her. As does her husband. What does that say about her?
When killers look just like us, people always tend to project on to them the same responses we might have in their predicament.
In the 20 years since the murders Stewart claims she couldn’t sleep and “wasn’t functioning”, but actually nothing stopped her getting on with life. It was new kitchens, foreign holidays, new relationships, even re-marriage. This wasn’t a woman eking out an existence in the shadows. The rest of us can’t imagine having the nerve to live that lie, even for a day.
If her crime had been a bank robbery rather than a double murder, Stewart did the equivalent of spending the proceeds lavishly until her accomplice grassed her up.
There are so many questions you’d want to hear her answer for the slightest insight into, or understanding of, her character. As it is, repeating phrases word for word suggests someone trying to remember a script, rather than reveal the real person.
Crucially, Stewart fails to grasp how deeply disliked she is even in a society which has experienced many varieties of violent death over the decades. She says she doesn’t dwell on what happened because it “opens up a can of worms” but contrition means confronting your actions.
Perhaps if she took self-awareness as her starting point, she might attain some measure of remorse and maybe then some accommodation with her past and the people she so deeply damaged.
Until then her claims of victimhood are a soap opera.