CASTLEROCK dentist Colin Howell is to serve at least 21 years in jail for murdering his wife and the husband of his former lover.
Mr Justice Hart, sitting on Friday in Antrim Crown Court sitting at Belfast, set the minimum term of imprisonment to be served by Colin Howell for the murders in 1991 of his wife, Lesley Howell and of Trevor Buchanan, the husband of his then lover and now co-defendant, Hazel Stewart (formerly Hazel Buchanan).
At the outset Mr Justice Hart clarified that Mrs Stewart has pleaded not guilty to both counts of murder and is currently awaiting trial on those charges.
He noted that Mrs Stewart accepts she and Mr Howell were engaged in an adulterous relationship for some time prior to the murders and that it continued on for several years before each of them subsequently remarried. She disputes, however, the intensity of their relationship after the murders. The judge said he did not propose to refer to her alleged role in the events leading up to, and during the murders, as this will have to be considered by the jury during the trial.
Mr Justice Hart considered that it was not necessary to await the outcome of the trial of Mrs Stewart before proceeding to fix the minimum term which Mr Howell must serve before he can be considered for release by the Parole Commissioners as his admissions clearly set out his role.
Mr Justice Hart said: "These were truly heinous crimes, constituting as they did the cold blooded, carefully planned and ruthlessly executed double murder of two people who Howell saw as standing in the way of his adulterous desire to be with Hazel Buchanan.
"Each murder was carried out when the victim was asleep and thus entirely defenceless. Even when they stirred in their sleep Howell did not draw back and spare their lives, but physically subdued their faint signs of approaching consciousness, thereby ensuring their deaths."
The judge added that as a consequence two innocent people were murdered, and six children deprived of the love of their mother or their father.
"The reputations of their innocent parents, who had already been wronged by Mr Howell, were further stigmatised by the false implication that they had taken their own lives in a suicide pact".
Mr Justice Hart said he had read victim impact statements from two of Mr Howell's children, from Lesley Howell's brother, and from members of Trevor Buchanan's family which showed that many lives had been gravely affected for many years by the murders. The court was also told that, while the prosecution accept that Mr Howell was not motivated by money when he committed the murders, he had been in financial difficulties at the time and profited financially from his wife's death. Mr Howell inherited her estate and that of her father who had died a few days before, as well as receiving the proceeds of a number of insurance policies. As a result he received various sums amounting to just over 414,000.
Mr Justice Hart set out the aggravating factors in the case: the way in which the murders were planned and carried out, the grave effect they had on the lives of so many, the financial benefits to Mr Howell, and the pain and grief he allowed others to experience for so many years before he confessed his guilt.
In determining the mitigating factors, the judge considered psychiatric reports prepared on behalf of Mr Howell.
Mr Justice Hart concluded that Mr Howell was an intelligent man who knew exactly what he was doing throughout.
The judge considered that the only mitigating factor in the case was Mr Howell's confession and his willingness to give evidence for the prosecution. The court was told that Mr Howell had concealed his guilt for nearly two decades until he was "driven by his conscience to confess", first to his second wife and then to the elders of a Christian Fellowship he had joined, and they contacted the police.
Mr Justice Hart said the confessions were a factor that must be taken into account in his favour, not least because had he not confessed he would never have been brought to justice for the crimes.
Mr Justice Hart concluded that the sentence must recognise that these were two separate murders, and although they were closely connected in both time and the manner in which they were carried out, they were nevertheless distinct and separate crimes, each characterised by the aggravating factors noted above: "Had Howell been convicted of these murders after pleading not guilty I consider that a minimum term of 28 years imprisonment would have been appropriate".
Taking account of Mr Howell's confession to the police, as he is required to do by statute, and that he has volunteered to give evidence against his co-defendant Mrs Stewart, the judge found that he had accepted his guilt and given practical expression to his remorse.
He fixed the minimum term that Mr Howell must serve in full before he is eligible to be considered for release as 21 years. This will include the time spent in custody on remand.