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Once Again, Convicted N.H. Killer Fights For New Trial

The Concord Monitor
Robert Breest, on trial for the murder of Manchester teen Susie Randall in 1973, smokes a cigarette during a jury view at the bridge on Interstate 93 in Concord where Breest was accused of having dropped Randall's body onto the frozen Merrimack River.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Thursday in a case dating back more than four decades. That case involves convicted murderer Robert Breest, who was given a life sentence for raping and killing 18-year-old Manchester resident Susan Randall in 1971.

Breest is now 78-years-old and is asking for a re-trial based on new forensic evidence.

Paige Sutherland sat down with NHPR's Rick Ganley to talk about the case.

This has been quite the lengthy legal battle. So let’s back track a little. For those who don’t know the case – break down some of the specifics that will be coming up in today’s arguments.

Basically back in 1973 the state convicted Robert Breest using three key pieces of evidence:  One: hair fibers found in Breest’s car that matched the coat the victim was wearing the night of the crime, Two: DNA evidence found under the victim’s fingernail linking to one male suspect, which they claimed was Breest, and Three: a confession Breest allegedly made to a current inmate at the time while he was being charged.

Breest’s lawyers are trying to poke holes in all three of those – but during last year’s appeal the judge only allowed the defense to argue for a new trial based on new forensic evidence found under the victim’s fingernails showing DNA of at least two males.

The defense argues because DNA of at least two male suspects was found – that completely discredits the state’s claim that Breest – acting alone, picked up Susan Randall while she was hitchhiking, brutally beat her and dumped her body into the Merrimack River in Concord.

Credit Courtesy of the N.H. Department of Corrections
Robert Breest

So I’m guessing because the state Supreme Court is now hearing the case – that claim didn’t win the judge over?

Nope. The judge decided that becausethe new DNA evidence doesn’t rule out Breest as a suspect – it wasn’t enough to say a new jury would have acted a different way.

And the state is likely to argue that again today as well as stress that this second piece of male DNA could be from a “casual male contact” i.e. a man she might have bumped into at the pizza parlor she was at earlier that night or that because this sample dates back four decades ago it could have gotten contaminated along the way.

Besides trying to convince the justices that this new evidence is strong enough to sway a new jury – what other arguments will Breest’s legal team be expected to bring up?

They will also be arguing that the lower court judge misruled when he decided that only arguments regarding this new forensic evidence could be brought up during last year’s hearing.

Breest’s lawyers believe that during the hearing they should have been allowed to talk about the other evidence including the hair fiber from the victim’s coat found in Breest’s car, which his lawyers claim due to advancements in technology this testing method has been scientifically proven to be unreliable. And; therefore, should be thrown out.

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

As well his lawyers will claim that they should've been allowed to discuss the credibility of this so-called jail house confession, which has been put into question since the trial. Therefore, the defense believes being able to bring up these elements is crucial to Breest’s appeal as they are the very factors that convicted Breest in the first place.

Breest has been locked up for 43 years now – has he had any opportunities to get out since then?

Yes. He’s been offered parole hearings twice now but since he’s unwilling to admit to the crime – he can’t be considered.

And it’s not only him that has been steadfast on his innocence. His wife of more than 44 years has also stood by his side along with his three children. His wife and at least one of his children are expected to be at today’s hearing.

As well as representation from the Innocence Project. They’ve been on the case for a while now. Their argument is that too often faulty DNA testing leads to wrongful convictions – specifically out of the 337 people exonerated in the U.S. – half is due to DNA testing.

As we know each side will have 15 minutes to argue their case today. But when should we expect a decision on this?

Well Rick, given the details in this case we shouldn’t expect a ruling for at least a few months.

And if the justices do grant a new trial – that would likely not start until at the earliest this summer. But just because Breest is granted a new trial doesn’t mean the state has to prosecute – they might not have the time nor the evidence to seal in another conviction. In that case if they decide not to move forward, Breest could be out of jail before the end of the new year.  

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