The saga of the murders of Trevor Buchannan and Lesley Howell has all the ingredients of a horrible human interest story or a perfect opportunity for voyeurism depending on one’s views. It has had a perfect; practically Shakespearian villain who finally seized with remorse has told all for the benefit of his soul and for all of our fascinated, sickened, voyeuristic enjoyment. Along with that there is Lady Macbeth herself: the calculating cold she devil who murdered her husband and a friend for lust, money and ambition.
Many may disagree with me about the following (many friends and acquaintances in real life already have) but I have always been somewhat dubious about this characterisation especially of Mrs. Stewart. My wife has suggested that I always support women even when only a fool would and that I am a Protestant St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes). However, the characterisation of Mrs. Stewart, the conduct of her prosecution and the revelling in her downfall which has been a feature particularly of the Belfast Telegraph have seemed so one dimensional as to be difficult to accept.
There is no point in rehashing the evidence or the story of the case: that was the job of the court. There are, however, questions which can legitimately be asked surrounding the conduct of this business and the media circus accompanying it.
It is noteworthy that Mrs. Stewart appears not to have been given the opportunity to plead guilty to the crimes she has most definitely committed and would, it seems, certainly have pleaded guilty to. Had she been charged with any, or all of the list of offences her husband mentioned on BBC’s Spotlight last night she would have had absolutely no defence. Furthermore it is frequently the case that criminals who could be charged with murder are only charged with lesser offences, often as part of a deal with the prosecution: people may criticise that but it is the bread and butter of our and many other legal systems.
On this occasion there seems to have been no attempt at following such a course of action which is in marked contrast to the norm. Had Mrs. Stewart been charged with and pleaded guilty to the lesser offences she would have gone to gaol for a prolonged period but there would have been no trial. To a cynic it might look as though the PPS wanted to put on a show and charging Mrs. Stewart with murder was the only way to get that show. Had Stewart pleaded guilty the trial would have lasted almost no time (like Colin Howell’s) and the scandalised population of Northern Ireland would not have had their circus – how far has the public’s appetite for revenge advanced from the stocks and public executions?
Whatever about the court room drama, the media handling of the case was a localised version of the sensationalism surrounding high profile trials of American media celebrities. We had psychologists and psychiatrists drafted in to pontificate on both Mr. Howell and Mrs. Stewart; endless comments on Mrs. Stewart’s wardrobe choices for the trial; her relative’s behaviour; her weekly church attendances even got a mention complete with shots of the front of Coleraine Baptist Church. Through it all stood and walked Hazel Stewart in her now infamous “plum coat”; we have never heard from her but that did not stop endless imagined reconstructions of the murders, police interviews etc.
When she was finally found guilty, the media, especially the Belfast Telegraph went into overdrive. The Telegraph may well have become progressively more populist recently; it may have gone on endlessly and voyeuristically about Mrs. Michaela McAreavey’s murder but here, with Hazel Stewart, the Belfast Telegraph’s move downmarket plumbed new depths. The paper told us with undisguised glee about the game prisoners play of trying to be the first to make a new inmate cry. They told of how difficult it would be for Stewart to adjust to life in gaol; they speculated on her mental health; suggested that prison officers were worried she might kill herself and even told us that she had allegedly said she had made “her peace with God.” One could almost read the Telegraph saying: “Go on Hazel do it: kill yourself.” Then when she did not (yet anyhow thankfully) there have been complaints about the large legal aid bill run up in Mrs. Stewart’s defence and that she can attend the gym and have her hair done in gaol.
There is not a subtext of schadenfreude: it has been open and overt. The pleasure that a wealthy, attractive woman; who had become the kept woman of a modestly wealthy man has now fallen was overt and actually pretty obscene.
The fact that Mrs. Stewart is an evangelical Christian simply added spice to the fun: with that and comments about her sex life and previous relationships the papers had a perfect target. The fact that through it all Stewart and her relatives said nothing resulted in the media (especially the Telegraph) filling the vacuum. It is unclear whether the quiet dignified yet realistic support of Hazel Stewart’s family on Spotlight last night will change public or media perceptions. Her relatively newly married husband’s unwavering yet not uncritical support of his wife is interesting. Although it is the laudable response of a spouse, it is, whatever Mr. Stewart may say, not the one which Christians or others always adopt when faced with circumstances much less severe than these: circumstances of which he is completely blameless. Mr. Stewart, a man who married late is now left, not a widower but something almost worse and he will be like that for up to 18 years.
Coming back to the legal aspects, 18 years seems an awfully long time as punishment for a double murder in which the criminal did not actually physically take part in the act and one which it seems difficult to believe that she was the main instigator of. The Northern Ireland judiciary are often accused of handing down excessively lenient sentences for serious crimes. On this occasion, however, there is no way that can be said and it looks a little as if the judge was playing more than a little to the media and public gallery.
It is also worth remembering that in 1991, 96 people died in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Anyone found guilty of murder in those circumstances will be out within two years. Even if Hazel Stewart is guilty of murder her crimes do not seem 9 times more serious than a terrorist’s.
Hazel Stewart is very clearly guilty of a series of serious crimes. However, at the end of this she does seem something of a victim: a victim of Colin Howell and also possibly a victim of, if not a miscarriage of justice, something very close to it. No: Not an innocent victim but a victim none the less.