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Four Decades and Counting: Family of N.H. Man Convicted of Murder Still Has Hope

Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Two of Robert Breest's sons and his wife of 45 years, Carole, attended Thursday's hearing. They've stood by his innocence since he was convicted in 1973.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is weighing whether to give 78-year-old convicted murderer, Robert Breest, a new trial.

During Thursday’s arguments the defense focused the discussion on new forensic evidence, they say debunks the state’s original case.

It’s been a long arduous legal battle for Robert Breest - 44 years behind bars and counting, multiple parole hearings denied, and appeals rejected.

But he stands by his claim of innocence and so does his family.

“He’s my father I support him," said his son Robert Breest, who goes by Manuel. Manuel took the hour-long drive from Ayer, Massachusetts Thursday morning to attend the appeal hearing in Concord, New Hampshire.

Manuel was 9-months old when his father was convicted. Since 1973 Breest has had parole opportunities twice, but because he won’t admit to raping and killing 18-year-old Manchester resident Susan Randall – he can’t be considered.

“He didn’t’ commit a crime and wants to prove it. Prove it to himself, to his family – I guess there are multiple things,” Manuel said after the hearing.

"We don't want to do anything big - just to be able to live our lives and be with our children and grandchildren, and great grandchildren - we got one of those," Breest's wife of 45 years says with a chuckle.

During Thursday’s arguments Justice Robert Lynn was stuck on this very issue of why Breest – after all this time – is still fighting to clear his name.

“It strikes me that at 78 years old having served 40 years in prison, assuming he doesn’t have a bad disciplinary record or something, I can’t help wondering why he is still in prison if the only reason is he won’t admit the offense,” Justice Lynn asked the state prosecutor.

But the issue at stake here is not whether Breest is innocent or not but merely whether he should be granted a new trial.

Breest’s attorney, Ian Dumain, told the justices that because new testing of DNA found underneath the victim’s fingernails shows DNA profiles for two male suspects – it more or less debunks the state’s claim that Breest acted alone when he allegedly picked up Randall, brutally killed her and dumped her body into the Merrimack River in Concord.

But because this testing does not rule out Breest as a suspect, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock, who’s the lead prosecutor on the case, told the justices this evidence wouldn’t sway a new jury.

“In none of the five DNA tests from 2002 to 2012 was the defendant excluded as a source of the DNA profile; therefore, the fundamental premise of the defendant’s argument that the 2012 profile somehow exonerates him is simply wrong,” Woodcock said.

Dumain; however, stressed after the hearing that this new piece of evidence is no silver bullet but rather is grounds to re-open the case and has been enough in several other states.

“If you talk about the results in that way, which is a conservative way of speaking about them, it doesn’t really tell you very much – oh yeah, you can’t be excluded but that could be true, literally of thousands of other people,” Dumain said.

Credit File Photo
Susan Randall of Manchester was killed at 18. Her body was found in the Merrimack River in Concord.

The victim’s family, on the other hand, has been steadfast on Breest’s guilt and hopes he remains in prison.

Susan Randall just graduated high school and was expected to start classes at the Chamberlain School of Design in Boston that fall.

Since being behind bars in Massachusetts, Breest has had a clean record. But according to the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit, Breest is a possible suspect in at least two of the unit’s unsolved murders. 

Whether Breest will get a new trial will likely take months for the justices to decide, but if the court does rule in his favor, there’s no guarantee the state will prosecute.

Besides lack of time and resources, Breest’s lawyer Ian Dumain said sealing in another conviction wouldn’t be easy.

“I think the reality is that if a new trial is granted whether it really made sense to try Mr. Breest again. One of the problems the state has is that many of the witnesses are dead,” Dumain said.

But Carole Breest, the defendant’s wife of 45 years, is hopeful he will get out soon. And if he does, the pair doesn’t have grand plans, merely just to be together after all these years.

“You know sit and talk with each other without a time limit on it, see the news, you know. We don’t want to do anything big – just to be able to live our lives and be with our children and grandchildren, and great grandchildren - we got one of those," she says with a chuckle.

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