The story of Colin Howell had all the necessary ingredients to excite those with an interest in crime stories. The villain was a successful, respectable member of the community; a religious man, a family man who went on to commit what looked like a perfect murder. The police were apparently a bit suspicious about the double suicide of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell but even a non lawyer can see that trying to prosecute Howell when there was an apparently much more convincing explanation for the deaths would have been impossible.
Like most murders it is actually a pretty sordid tale, complete with Mr. Buchanan trying to save himself before being overcome with fumes and Mrs. Howell’s last word being her son’s name: a fact which apparently haunted Howell – something to which almost everyone will say served you right.
Howell has been told he will serve a minimum of 21 years in gaol. Personally I do not support the death penalty nor even the concept that a life sentence should necessarily mean life in gaol. However, 21 years; most likely the majority of the rest of Howell’s life expectancy seems a reasonable sentence. Murdering someone should result in your life being pretty ruined and the fact that Howell will be stuck in the likes of HMP Maghaberry for a very prolonged period seems entirely just and reasonable.
Howell seems still to be a religious man and apparently confessed his crime to church elders before going to the police. If so there is some merit in that and the judge told him that he would have been given 28 years had he not pleaded guilty. One cannot comment on Howell’s current position on religion but confessing one’s sins and repenting from them will, Christians believe, result in their immediate forgiveness. That is, however, very different from meaning that one must not receive the punishment in this temporal world for those sins. Hence, it is entirely consistent for evangelical Christians to believe that Howell has been completely forgiven for his sin, will be in heaven; yet must spend the allotted time in gaol. I have discussed fundamentalists views on forgiveness previously.
Broadening the issue from Howell himself, according to the Sutton Index 91 people died during 1991 in Troubles related deaths; 6 members of the RUC were murdered during 1991. Mr. Buchanan was also in the RUC. However, if any of the murderers of those other RUC officers were convicted they would serve less than a tenth of Howell’s sentence. The same applies to any other murder from the Troubles. This has been argued as having been necessary for “The Process” and we are told that these pathetically short sentences are what we voted for after the Belfast Agreement.
However, there is something fundamentally perverse about the fact that Howell or any other murderer from 1991 will serve a very lengthy gaol term unless the victim was murdered as part of terrorism. It seems that Howell deciding to murder his wife and Mr. Buchanan is a serious crime but had Howell been motivated by sectarian bigotry it would be nothing like as serious and he would be out by 2014 or even earlier with time already served.