Trial of dentist and ex-lover delayed

The trial of a dentist and his ex-lover accused of murdering their partners in the North nearly 20 years ago has had to be delayed because of a hold-up in obtaining psychiatric reports.

Mr Justice Hart at Belfast Crown Court today set November 22 as the new date after accusing defence lawyers in the case of "dithering".

The trial of Colin Howell (aged 51) and Hazel Stewart (aged 47) had been scheduled to start on November 1, but the court heard that new psychiatric tests had yet to be take place.

Howell is to be examined by Professor Nigel Eastman. Stewart, a mother of two, will be seen by Dr Gill Mezey, another London based forensic psychiatrist.

Howell has already been examined by two psychiatrists, Dr Philip Joseph and Dr Helen Harbinson, but his lawyer Francis Rafferty told today's hearing that Dr Eastman could not proceed with his report until after the dentist was examined again by a prison psychiatrist, Dr Ian Bownes, on October 15.

Neither of the accused appeared for today's review hearing. Howell of Glebe Road, Castlerock, Co Derry has been in custody since his arrest in January last year. Stewart, of Ballystrone Road, Coleraine, also Co Derry has been out on bail.

They are charged with the murders of Howell's wife Lesley, 31 and Stewart's first husband, police scenes of crime officer Trevor Buchanan, 32, whose bodies were found in a car filled with exhaust fumes in Castlerock in May 1991.

At the time it was thought they died as a result of some sort of suicide pact, but police reopened the investigation after questioning the dentist.

Mr Justice Hart heard that Dr Mezey was called in by Stewart's defence team which first approached Professor Eastman without realising he had already been instructed by Howell's legal representatives.

The judge, who was clearly irritated by the delay in having the psychiatric examinations carried out, accused the defence teams of "dithering and delaying".

He said: "It's a pity the professor was not chased a bit more rapidly. Due to the period of time it has taken the defence to prepare their case by seeking expert support, the trial date is going to have to be changed."

A Crown lawyer said the delay would only leave their expert just two weeks to respond to the reports.

Judge Hart replied: "Some of us would think that is plenty of time. If it is not done in that time, you will have to find somebody else."

An application by the Crown to admit hearsay evidence involving two witness statements and accounts from Howell's dental practice will be heard on October 1.

Stewart's second husband, ex-police chief superintendent David Stewart, once a staff officer to a former RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley as well as some of Mr Buchanan's brothers and two sisters, were among relatives in the public gallery for the hearing.

Howell is also facing 17 charges of indecently assaulting six women patients at his dental implant surgery in Ballymoney, Co Antrim. They are alleged to have happened over a 10 year period between 1998 and 2008.

He also re-married following his wife's death.

The bodies of Lesley Howell and Mr Buchanan were found in the car in a garage at the back of a row of houses known as The Apostles where Lesley's father, Harry Clarke, lived before he collapsed and died just days earlier.

Howell's second wife, Kyle, a divorcee and an American, has left the family home outside Castlerock and returned to the United States where she has launched proceedings to end their marriage. She had two children from her first marriage, and she and Howell went on to have another five.

Howell had four children with Lesley. His eldest son Matthew, 22, a student at St Andrews University, died in a fall at his apartment in St Petersburg in April 2007 where he had been studying for a year as part of his degree course in Spanish, Russian and international relations.

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