The Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) has today released its report into the investigation of the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell who died in 1991. The initial investigation determined that they had died by suicide pact but earlier this year both of their spouses were convicted of their murders (Hazel Buchanan is appealling her conviction).
The report finds that the initial investigation was ‘deeply flawed’. Al Hutchinson says:
“There was a very early assumption of suicide. I have seen little evidence that this assumption was subject to any test or challenge by the investigators.
“For nearly two decades family members and close friends were left to cope with the thought that Trevor and Lesley had chosen to take their own lives. The families may never have had to live through this pain had the police conducted a thorough, searching investigation when they had the opportunity in 1991.
“Evidential opportunities were overlooked or ignored, lines of enquiry were not fully explored and police did not consider the inconsistencies and discrepancies in the evidence which began to emerge. They accepted the accounts provided by Howell and Buchanan despite the fact that from quite early on in the investigation both were shown to be lying.
“These failures are all the more difficult to accept or understand given the fact that the investigation was conducted by two experienced senior detectives. I can only conclude that police failed the victims’ families…”
Police did not gather the forensic evidence which should have been gathered, a number of injuries on Mr Buchanan’s face were not documented, information from a witness was ignored, inconsistencies between the evidence of the spouses were not explored and evidence at the scene which suggested foul play were not explored. One serving police officer brought his concerns to police and these were ignored.
This was clearly a case of ‘tunnel vision’ in the investigation which caused immense harm to both families who initially had to deal with the belief that their loved ones had committed suicide and nearly two decades later had to come to terms with the fact that they had been killed by their loved ones.
The report makes no recommendations and indeed does not engage in any analysis of whether similar problems could arise today, finishing as it does by saying that, “The Police Ombudsman has concluded that both families were failed by the original 1991 police investigation, which was deeply flawed by the standards of the time and lacked objectivity and focus.” At the very least it would have been reassuring had the report set out the ways in which such a lack of objectivity would be countered by the standards of this time.