TRIAL: Stewart will not testify

DOUBLE murder accused, Hazel Stewart, will not give evidence at her trial, her lawyer told Coleraine Crown Court on Thursday.

Paul Ramsey QC told judge Mr Justice Anthony Hart that the 47-year-old mother-of-two will not take the stand in the high profile case.

She is accused of plotting with her ex-lover Colin Howell to kill his wife Lesley and her husband Trevor Buchanan in May 1991 and covering it up as a suicide pact. She denies the charges.

The judge asked Mr Ramsey was his client aware that her decision not to give evidence would be taken into account by the jury of three women and nine men.

“The jury may draw such inference as would appear proper from her failure to do so,” he said.

The barrister said Stewart, who sat impassively in the dock wearing a white shirt and her familiar plum coat, knew the situation.

He told the court the defence would be calling no evidence in the case.

The development came on the twelfth day of the trial after Crown lawyer Ciaran Murphy had closed the prosecution case.

The bodies of constable Buchanan, 32, and Mrs Howell, 31, were found in a car filled with carbon monoxide fumes in the seaside town of Castlerock.

Police first believed the pair died in a suicide pact because they were so depressed about the affair their partners were having at the time.

But 18 years after the deaths, Howell confessed to elders in his church that he had killed them in their respective homes in Coleraine by gassing them with carbon monoxide piped from his car and then drove the bodies to Castlerock and staged the scene.

The dentist, who was sentenced to 21 years after pleading guilty to the murders last year, alleges that Stewart was his accomplice in the murderous plot to rid them of their spouses.

On Wednesday, the court heard Stewart breaking down in recorded police interview tapes and admitting to detectives that she was aware of the plan and knew her husband was to be killed on the day it happened.

She also confessed to burning the hose pipe Howell used to gas the pair and to deceiving police in the aftermath.

Stewart said she was aware part of the plot involved drugging her husband so he would be weak when Howell arrived but she insisted she did not give him a sedative, and that he took one himself because he was having problems sleeping.

However, she told detectives in the emotional interview two days after her arrest in January 2009 that if her husband had not taken a pill she would have had to act.

Stewart claimed she wanted no part of the plan and that Howell forced her into going along with it.

But she acknowledged she took no action to stop the murders.

Last week, Howell was transported from Maghaberry Prison to give evidence against his former mistress on four successive days.

At the start of proceedings on Thursday, the court was read a brief letter the dentist had subsequently sent from his cell to the judge.

In it he said he wanted to clarify minor details about the timing in relation to two incidents prior to the murders: one when he dangled an electric cable over his wife in the bath and the second when he made contact with Stewart again after an enforced break in their affair ordered by church elders.

Stewart’s second husband David and children Andrew and Lisa sat yards from her in the public gallery.

On the opposite side of the court, one of Howell’s daughters, Lauren, sat among relatives of Trevor Buchanan.

The Crown re-called one witness - Dr John Press - just prior to closing its evidence.

The retired pathologist carried out post-mortem examinations on the two victims after their bodies were discovered almost 20 years ago.

Mr Murphy asked the doctor about the fact he had found nothing in constable Buchanan’s stomach.

Howell claims Stewart administered sedatives to her husband by crushing them up in a tuna sandwich or roll earlier on the evening of his murder, an allegation she denied in police interview.

Dr Press told the court that there was only mucus in the policeman’s stomach when he carried out his examination and that any food had made its way into the intestines.

Mr Murphy asked how long it took for food to leave the stomach.

“I’d say a couple of hours, even for large meals to have disappeared,” said the doctor.

“Even from half-an-hour, food will start to move.”