Killer Stewart set to appeal

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A former Sunday school teacher jailed for murdering her policeman husband and her ex-lover’s wife has launched an appeal bid against her conviction.

Lawyers for Coleraine woman Hazel Stewart, 48, submitted papers applying for leave to appeal against a jury’s unanimous decision to find her guilty of killing Pc Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell on Northern Ireland’s north coast almost 20 years ago.

A judge will consider whether there are sufficient grounds for allowing a full appeal hearing to take place. If the appeal proceeds it is unlikely to be heard before Christmas.

Legal sources indicated that the application for leave was received by the courts. It was submitted just ahead of the four-week deadline subsequent to her sentencing.

It raises the possibility of Stewart taking to the witness box in an attempt to overturn her conviction. She did not give evidence in her original trial.

If she does, she will be following in the footsteps of ‘Black Widow’ killer Julie McGinley.

McGinley took to the witness box in 2006 in a bid to overturn her life sentence with a 15-year tariff for the murder of her husband Gerry in 2000.

She refused to give evidence at her jury trial but at her appeal she wrote a statement dated August 24, 2005, which her legal team introduced as new evidence and which she was cross-examined on. But judges upheld her conviction and also her tariff of 15 years without parole.

Stewart is in Hydebank women’s prison in Belfast after being handed an 18-year minimum term following her conviction for plotting with her former lover, dentist Colin Howell, to poison his wife and her husband in May 1991.

The 32-year-old policeman and Mrs Howell, 31, were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock.

Police thought they had died in a bizarre suicide pact - triggered by their spouses’ infidelity - until 18 years later when lay preacher Howell, apparently wracked by guilt, confessed to elders in his church that he murdered them and stage-managed the scene to look like they had taken their own lives.

He pleaded guilty to the murders last year and is serving 21 years in prison.

The dentist gassed his wife as she slept in their Coleraine home with carbon monoxide fumes piped from his car before dumping her body in the boot of the vehicle and driving the 10-minute journey to the Buchanan home. There he was met by Stewart and went on to kill the sleeping policeman by the same method.

The jurors in Stewart’s 15-day trial at Coleraine Crown Court agreed that she knew about the plan in advance and, in the case of her husband, actively facilitated his killing by ensuring he was drugged and allowing Howell into her home. They found her guilty on two counts of murder.

Stewart’s current husband, ex-police chief superintendent David Stewart, and her children Lisa (28), and Andrew (27), are standing by her. They said in a television interview they believed their mother was not guilty of the murders and that she was manipulated by Howell.

Her son Andrew, who was seven when his father was killed, told a BBC Spotlight programme: “We would not have wanted what happened to our Dad ever to happen. But we lost our dad and this nearly feels like we are going to lose our mum.”

Stewart has been taking keep-fit classes and pampering by a beautician in prison.

Prisoner F2951, as she is known in Hydebank Wood Prison has kept herself busy by working out regularly in the prison gym and has been going to spinning classes two or three times a week.

She has also been walking dogs on the site to lift her spirits. She is said to be engaging in a ‘dog socialisation’ scheme with animals Heidi and Sailor who live at the jail and are cared for by the prisoners.

A Prison Service spokeswoman confirmed dog socialisation is very much an ongoing project at Hydebank, aimed at encouraging social interaction among inmates.

Ex-Hydebank governor Austin Treacy, who championed the scheme, said: “It was one of my officers, an ex-police officer, who had two therapy dogs herself and started bringing them in in her spare time.”

BOOK publishers Penquin has bought what promises to be a “riveting” account of the Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart story.

Penguin Ireland managing director, Michael McLoughlin, bought UK and Commonwealth rights to Let This Be Our Secret: The Colin Howell/Hazel Stewart Murder Case by Deric Henderson, with Gill & Macmillan publishing director Fergal Tobin acquiring Irish rights, through Paul Feldstein of the Feldstein Agency.

Both houses are expected to publish the book this autumn.

Dentist Colin Howell and his former lover, Hazel Stewart are both serving life sentences for the murders of their former partners, Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan in Coleraine in 1991.

Deric Henderson has been a journalist for 40 years and is editor of the Press Association of Ireland.

Michael McLoughling said: “Deric is the PA man in Ireland and he’s based in Belfast so he has been all over this story since day one.”

Deric has spoken to many people close to both Howell and Stewart, and to family members on both sides.

McLoughlin added: “The case has caught the public imagination, not just here but in the UK. We felt it is such an unusual case and the fact that not the whole story has come out yet makes it even more interesting. It is a riveting read.”

Right: Award-winning journalist, Deric Henderson