It took the judge, Mr Justice Anthony Hart, precisely 22 minutes to tell Hazel Stewart that she must serve at least 18 years in prison before a parole board would consider her for release.
At Belfast Crown Court all available space in the public gallery was taken up and beyond the seats in the back row, it was standing room only.
Lesley Howell’s brother, Dr Chris Clarke, an anaesthetist, missed the judge’s address. His flight from Liverpool was delayed by fog, but her only daughter Lauren Bradford was there, as well as Alice Berry from Lurgan, Co Armagh, her only surviving aunt on her late mother’s side of the family.
Trevor Buchanan’s brothers and two sisters, along with other members of the extended family and some friends must have filled a third of the public gallery.
Stewart sat looking more gaunt than ever, pale and without make-up; her eyes lowered and fixed on the ground in front. Stewart was dressed in grey slacks and her customary plum coloured coat, buttoned up, her hands clasped and just before she was invited by a court official to take her seat “with His Lordship’s permission” she turned and looked over her left shoulder to seek out familiar faces in the crowd behind.
Her daughter Lisa, sitting beside her brother Andrew, seemed to mouth: “You okay? Are you all right?” Her mother nodded.
By all accounts, her former lover Colin Howell has settled well into prison life at Maghaberry, near Lisburn, Co Antrim, where he is serving 21 years after he admitted the two murders. He has been there since his arrest in January 2009.
He reads his Bible every day, writes prolifically, mixes well with most of the inmates, particularly those in the hospital wing where he works as an orderly and has his own accommodation. He also delights in those who come to visit him, including friends from his church-going days on the North Coast, but especially his daughter Lauren, who married last year.
The fact that Howell owned up and agreed to testify against the woman with whom he shared his life for five years after gassing his wife and then her husband, Trevor Buchanan, means he will be a free man again by January 2030 — just as he had anticipated before handing himself in.
So the big question at Belfast Crown Court today was quite simple: Would his co-accused, already sentenced to life, be out of jail before or after him?
The judge referred to victim impact statements from Chris Clarke, two of Howell’s children and several members of the Buchanan family.
It was particularly poignant, he said, to read the descriptions of the effect Trevor Buchanan’s death had on his elderly parents.
The fact that her husband and children were standing by her showed there was another side to her character, and the judge referred to a testimony provided by “responsible members” of a company who had worked with her for several years after the murders claiming the portrayal of her as a manipulative, unfeeling, selfish, amoral, devious and wicked woman bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Hazel Stewart they had come to love and respect.
“Taking all of the factors to which I referred into account, I consider that the minimum term Stewart should serve before she can be considered for release is one of 18 years imprisonment.”
With no remission she could be a free woman and released back into the community again by 2029 — a year before Howell is scheduled to get out.