Stewart faces delay in double murder appeal

HAZEL Stewart’s attempt to overturn her conviction for a double murder may be delayed until after the summer.

The Court of Appeal in Belfast heard that a psychiatric assessment of the Coleraine woman will not be ready until the end of March.

Depending on its contents, a second expert report may also be required.

Stewart, 48, is appealing against a verdict that she plotted with dentist Colin Howell to kill their respective spouses 20 years ago.

Asked by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan if there was a realistic prospect of the case being heard before the summer, Stewart’s barrister Mark Reel replied: “It is possible but I can’t put it any higher.”

In November last year a judge who studied papers submitted by her new legal team ruled there were insufficient grounds to challenge the conviction.

But the mother of two, currently being held at Hydebank Prison in Belfast, is still to apply directly to the Court of Appeal.

She is undergoing psychiatric and psychological examinations before a decision is made on whether to seek to introduce fresh evidence.

Her second husband, retired police superintendent David Stewart, was in court for the update on the case.

Mr Reel said an unnamed expert had been enlisted, but due to personal circumstances his first report is expected to take another two months to complete.

Sir Declan directed defence lawyers to confirm by the end of March whether any further expert assessment was required.

Stewart was jailed for a minimum of 18 years for the murders of her husband, Constable Trevor Buchanan, 32, and 31-year-old Lesley Howell, the wife of Colin Howell.

The victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock 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 took nearly two decades for the truth to emerge when Howell, 52, suddenly confessed to both killings.

He pleaded guilty to the murders in 2010 and is serving a minimum of 21 years at Maghaberry Prison.

Howell also implicated his former lover in the plot and gave evidence against her at her trial.

In March last year a jury at Coleraine Crown Court found Stewart guilty on two counts of murder.

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 hose pipe used to gas their spouses, it was claimed.

A further review of progress in preparation of her appeal is due to take place in April.