TRAIL: A year for each year she hid the secret

PACEMAKER BELFAST   16/3/2011'Convicted double murderer Hazel Stewart in the back of a prison van at Laganside court today as she learned her sentence from Judge Harte. She was found guilty of the double murder of her husband Trevor Buchannon and her lover (Colin Howell's) wife Lesley.'PHOTO CHARLES MCQUILLAN/PACEMAKER
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/3/2011'Convicted double murderer Hazel Stewart in the back of a prison van at Laganside court today as she learned her sentence from Judge Harte. She was found guilty of the double murder of her husband Trevor Buchannon and her lover (Colin Howell's) wife Lesley.'PHOTO CHARLES MCQUILLAN/PACEMAKER

THE clock on the wall directly above the dock was just approaching 10.23 when she heard the words which condemned her.

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.

Unlike a fortnight ago when the jury in Coleraine convicted her, there were no tears and no drama.

Resignation maybe and relief, on all sides, that it was finally all over and done with.

One of her relatives rubbed her eyes, and if she did cry, then she appeared to be the only one.

Court 12 at Belfast Crown Court in Laganside was packed. 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, 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 close friends must have filled a third of the public gallery. They were respectful and dignified, and no doubt exhausted and emotionally drained by what clearly has been an unimaginable and horrendous experience.

Stewart had three prison wardens with her this time, not the two who flanked her before. She sat looking more gaunt than ever, pale and without make-up; her eyes lowered and fixed on the ground in front.

Over to her left was the police officer who headed the investigation, the hugely impressive Detective Superintendent Raymond Murray.

He took time out from his annual leave to be here for the hearing, and beside him was his No 2 on the inquiry team, Detective Chief Inspector Ian Magee.

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 where he is serving 21 years after he admitted the two murders. He has been there since his arrest in January 2009.

The same judge told him last December that if he had protested his innocence before a jury and then been convicted, he would have gone to jail for 28 years.

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.

A beautiful, charming and warm-hearted young lady, just like her late mother.

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.

So the big question at Belfast Crown Court was quite simple: would his co-accused, already sentenced to life, be out of jail before or after him?

Even before the judge pulled up his chair and started to read his prepared script which ran to seven pages – The Queen v Hazel Stewart – her breathing began to become laboured, maybe not as heavy as it was in the minutes before she was found guilty.

But she still looked desperately tense and fearful.

Mr Justice Hart said the jury had accepted that she was not just a passive onlooker, but an active participant, albeit to a lesser extent than Howell. He outlined the role she played.

How she did nothing to prevent the murders. How she had to ensure her husband was sedated.

How she allowed Howell into the house where she did virtually nothing to dissuade him from murdering her husband, knowing that he had already murdered his wife; providing Howell with the clothes to dress the body of her lifeless husband; cutting up and burning the garden hose which was used to gas him; washing the bedcovers and then providing a false account to police to cover up the crimes.

The judge referred to victim impact statements from Chris Clarke, two of Howell’s children and several members of the Buchanan family. They were eloquent and deeply moving accounts of their sense of loss and their feelings of betrayal at having been deceived for so many years.

It was particularly poignant, he said, to read the descriptions of the effect Trevor Buchanan’s death had on his elderly parents.

The judge said it was noteworthy that throughout her police interviews, Stewart said far more about the effect of the events on herself, her children and present husband than she did about the effects the murders had on the lives on all the others involved.

Stewart looked at the judge just two or three times throughout sentencing, and her eyes closed momentarily when he declared: “I consider that she had expressed little remorse for what she did. Rather the sorrow and regret which she expressed to the police was largely because of the situation in which she found herself, and not for the events in which she played her part.”

He said she had been infatuated with Howell who was undoubtedly a charismatic, manipulative, hypocritical man with a very considerable sexual appetite, offering her the sort of excitement which she claimed her marriage lacked.

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.

He said: “Tragically the consequences for Stewart’s children and her husband are part of the legacy of the conduct of both herself and Howell.

“Those factors and the fact that she has a clear record, cannot carry great weight when placed in the balance when fixing the minimum term for such grave crimes, but I give them, and the positive side to her character spoken in the passage just quoted, such weight as I can.

“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.”

The judge then pushed his chair back and got to his feet and immediately the public gallery began to empty.

Stewart’s family was the last to leave. They watched as she was led away to an adjoining holding cell outside the courtroom. She did not look this time.

If she had, she would have caught a glimpse of her daughter, in a bright pink coat, leaning forwards and running her hand down a glass partition which separated them, as if she was reaching out.

According to those who know her, Hazel Stewart, who has never expressed any remorse, will find prison very difficult. But she will cope.

With no remission she could, if a parole board decrees, be a free woman and released back into the community again by 2029 – a year before Howell is scheduled to get out.