Family in mercy plea for killer wife Stewart

The children of a former Sunday school teacher who murdered their father and her lover's wife have pleaded with a judge to show their mother mercy, a court heard today.

The children of a former Sunday school teacher who murdered their father and her lover's wife have pleaded with a judge to show their mother mercy, a court heard today.

Hazel Stewart's daughter Lisa and son Andrew urged Justice Anthony Hart to show leniency when he comes to announce the minimum number of years she must serve in prison after being convicted of killing her policeman husband Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell almost 20 years ago.

As the children watched from the public gallery in Belfast Crown Court, defence lawyer Paul Ramsey QC said: "They have memories of their father and love for their father and they know she (Stewart) played a role in their father's death and nonetheless they stand by her."

But a Crown lawyer claimed that 48-year-old Stewart, who sat in the dock with her head bowed, had shown no remorse for her crimes and had a lot to answer for.

The one-time playgroup assistant's ex-lover - 51-year-old dentist Colin Howell - pleaded guilty to the double murder last year and is serving a 21-year-sentence.

Pc Buchanan and Mrs Howell were found in a fume-filled garage in the seaside town of Castlerock, Co Derry in May 1991.

Police thought they had died in a bizarre suicide pact until 18 years later when lay preacher Howell, apparently wracked by his conscience, confessed to elders in his church that he had murdered them and staged the scene.

Howell gassed his wife with carbon monoxide as she slept in their Coleraine home with engine 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 to do the same to Pc Buchanan.

He then took his two victims to nearby Castlerock where he staged the suicide in the house of his wife's late father.

The jury at Stewart's trial unanimously accepted that she knew about the plan in advance and, in the case of her husband, had actively facilitated his killing by ensuring he was drugged and allowing Howell into her home.

She also destroyed evidence and went along with a concocted alibi that they had taken their own lives for almost two decades.

Mr Hart received submissions from the defence and prosecution during a half-hour pre-sentencing hearing. The judge said he would consider the arguments and pass sentence next Wednesday morning.

Stewart, who has been adjusting to life inside Hydebank women's prison in south Belfast since her conviction at Coleraine Crown Court last week, wiped tears from her eyes as she turned to look at her children ahead of proceedings.

They sat alongside her second husband David Stewart in the public gallery and a short distance from relatives of Pc Buchanan and Mrs Howell. Among them was the Howells' daughter Lauren.

Crown lawyer Ciaran Murphy acknowledged that Stewart, from Ballystrone Road, Coleraine, was a secondary party in the murders to Howell's principal role, but said there were a range of aggravating factors the judge should consider.

These included her involvement in the plot and the fact she did nothing to prevent the killings.

Also that she knew her husband had taken a sleeping pill and her concession that she would have had to act to drug him if he had not done so himself.

He said she had received money as a consequence of her husband's death, including a police widow's pension and endowment payment.

"She gained financially from the acceptance that her husband committed suicide," he said.

The lawyer claimed Stewart had also shown no sign that she was sorry.

"She has not shown remorse and has made no confession," he said.

Mr Murphy said that, along with Stewart's two children and her current husband, relatives of Pc Buchanan and Mrs Howell had submitted victim impact statements to the court.

These included testimony from two of the Howells' children Lauren and Daniel, Mrs Howell's brother Christopher Clarke and Pc Buchanan's brothers and sisters.

"These provide profound material on the devastating effect those deaths had and continue to have upon the families," said the lawyer.

He pointed to the profound dignity with which the families had expressed themselves and stressed the feelings of guilt and shame some had felt under the false impression that their loved ones thought they had no option other than to end their own lives.

Mr Murphy made reference to the statement of Pc Buchanan's brother Gordon, who recalled how his late father Jim had hugged his dead son.

"He outlines his father's reaction on seeing his son when he was dead and lifting him in his arms and saying to him 'Why didn't you come to me, son'," he said.

"He found that a heart-wrenching occasion."

Mr Murphy said Stewart's decision to contest the charges and go to trial had compounded the victims' hurt.

"These dignified people have suffered a tragic event which will not leave them and Hazel Stewart has a lot to answer for," he said.

While noting her secondary role entitled her to a reduction in sentence, he said Stewart had been wholly complicit in the murderous plot.

Mr Ramsey said the jury had accepted the prosecution's case that the murders were a joint enterprise and rejected the defence argument that Stewart was subservient to Howell.

But he said it was not correct that Stewart, who sat in the dock behind him wearing a white shirt and her familiar plum coat, had shown no remorse and reminded the court of the police interview tapes played at the trial in which she broke down and apologised for her actions.

"She was clearly remorseful and clearly regretted," he said.

The lawyer claimed she had outlined her role to detectives at the outset and never retreated from that.

He also referred to the public statements made outside court by the victims' families after Stewart was convicted.

"It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by those testimonials but it was significant, and I think Mr Murphy touched upon this, what emerged from those statements was profound sadness but there was no talk of vengeance or triumphalism."

Mr Ramsey said this was a case where "there are no winners".

"Two families have been subjected to an unreal series of events starting two decades ago," he said.

He said they had lived under the false belief that their loved ones had committed suicide, only to find out years later they had been murdered.

The deaths, he added, had a "cataclysmic impact" on both families.

But the lawyer suggested the case facing the judge was "unique and unprecedented" as two of the victims - namely the Buchanan children Andrew and Lisa - had made statements asking for mercy to be shown to their mother, the killer of their father.

He said there was a clear distinction in the roles of Howell and Stewart and urged the judge to consider that.

Mr Ramsey appealed to Justice Hart to pass a sentence that "adequately reflects and represents her role and takes into account the urging of her children and present husband to show mercy to her".

The lawyer said it was clear Stewart presented no danger to the public.

The sentence, he concluded, should be "fair, just and adequately reflects her role and not one that would crush her".

The judge said he would consider all the facts presented to him and pass sentence at 10am on Wednesday.

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