Hazel Stewart’s conviction for the murder of her policeman husband should be quashed because a jury was not properly directed on her previous good character, Belfast’s Court of Appeal has heard.
Lawyers for the former Sunday school teacher claimed flawed advice which failed to mention her lack of criminal propensity rendered the guilty verdict unsafe.
Barrister Brendan Kelly QC told a panel of three judges the absence of a proper character direction gave rise to “the lurking doubt”.
Stewart (52) is serving a minimum 18-year sentence for the double killing of her husband Trevor Buchanan (32) and Lesley Howell (31), the wife of her ex-lover Colin Howell. Both were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock, in May 1991.
Police originally believed they died in a suicide pact after discovering their partners were having an affair. Howell (56) eventually pleaded guilty to the murders in 2010 and implicated Stewart in the plot but she is seeking to clear her name.
In January 2013 her appeal against being convicted of Ms Howell’s murder was dismissed. At that stage she abandoned her challenge to being found guilty of killing Mr Buchanan.
Her lawyers on Wednesday sought permission to resurrect the appeal over the Buchanan death, claiming the abandonment should be annulled because she was allegedly not advised by previous legal representatives that it could amount to a dismissal.
Mr Kelly said both Stewart and her husband were told there was no arguable appeal on the Buchanan murder. He then set out the grounds on which he argued the conviction should be overturned. Even though Stewart made admissions in police interviews, the barrister insisted that elsewhere on the tapes she made clear her opposition to Howell’s murder plot.
By pleading not guilty and contesting the charges, despite giving no evidence at trial, a full direction on her previous good character should have been given to the jury, the court heard.
Dealing with the pressure Howell allegedly exerted over his client, Mr Kelly told Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Gillen and Lord Justice Weatherup: “The case was put on the basis that she was willing to participate.
“Her issue was that in so far as she did, she was overborne, according to the interview, and in any event she wasn’t party to the murder.”
Ciaran Murphy QC, for the prosecution, emphasised the lies Stewart told at the time of the original police investigation into the killings and subsequent inquests.
“Only a defendant with an entirely good character is entitled to a full good character direction,” he said.
Mr Murphy accepted it would have been “preferable” if the trial judge had dealt with her lack of propensity, but questioned if it would have had any impact.
Following arguments the Lord Chief Justice confirmed a decision was being reserved on both the abandonment of the original appeal and the fresh grounds of challenge. “We will want to reflect on the submissions and give our judgment on this as soon as we can.”