Lawyers for Massachusetts man imprisoned for 41 years seek new trial in murder case
Robert Breest had the chance to walk out of prison on parole, after spending nearly half his life there -- if he admitted to committing a 1971 murder. But the former Lowell carpenter, now 75, steadfastly refused.
Breest has maintained his innocence and has relentlessly filed petitions seeking to toss out his conviction.
Now his lawyers say they have evidence, including new DNA test results, that cast serious doubts about whether Breest murdered Susan Randall on a February night 42 years ago and hurled her body, half-naked, over the Merrimack River Bridge in Concord, N.H. They filed a motion Friday seeking a retrial.
The case has become one of the more contentious legal battles in New Hampshire history. Breest’s successful 2000 motion for DNA testing of evidence used to convict him -- dried blood under Randall’s fingernails – was the first time that state’s courts allowed DNA results in post-conviction proceedings.
Since then, several rounds of DNA testing of the severely degraded evidence have produced either inconclusive results, or failed to rule Breest out as the killer. Prosecutors have said that it’s time to stop dragging Randall’s family through such an emotional wringer.
But Breest’s lawyers say the new test results, produced using newer DNA technology, clearly show that Randall was in “a violent struggle with at least two men” before she died, as opposed to a lone murderer, as prosecutors have long contended. That, they say in their motion, drives a stake into prosecutors’ central theory of the case and the testimony of the state’s star witness, a jailhouse informant, who testified that Breest told him he acted alone.
“All the problems you see in wrongful conviction cases are present in this case -- a confession from a jail house snitch, bad eyewitness [identifications] and junk science,” said New York attorney Ian Dumain, who volunteered in early 2007 to represent Breest for free after learning of the case from the Innocence Project, which helps prisoners try to prove their innocence through DNA testing.
Jeff Strelzin, senior assistant New Hampshire attorney general and chief of the homicide division, said Friday that he had just received Breest’s motion for a new trial and had not yet had a chance to read it.
Members of Susan Randall’s family could not immediately be reached for comment.
Susan Randall, the 18-year-old woman Breest was convicted of killing, was living in Manchester and working two jobs, with dreams of saving enough money to attend fashion design school, according to court documents. She had gone out for pizza with a friend, and apparently was walking home when last seen shortly after midnight, Feb. 28, 1971.
She never showed up. A state highway department employee discovered her body several days later, lying under a bridge in Concord, naked from the waist down.
Breest was a 33-year-old carpenter, living in Lowell with his pregnant wife and their four children, when police questioned him shortly after the murder. An acquaintance had reported to police that Breest had been moving furniture in Manchester during the night in question -- something Breest has acknowledged -- and that he drove a white vehicle. Witnesses reported they saw a woman who resembled Randall getting into a white car shortly before she disappeared, but their accounts differed as to the make and model of that vehicle.
Breest was arrested a year later, in 1972, and has been inprisoned since. A jury convicted him in March 1973 of first-degree murder. The sentence was life in prison.
At trial, prosecutors said Randall had clawed her assailant “to the bone,” that Breest was that lone assailant, and that the blood under Randall’s fingernails matched Breest’s blood type. A jailhouse informant, David Carita, also testified that Breest had confessed to him that he committed the murder. No mention was made of an accomplice.
Carita died two years later, according to court documents and news accounts at that time, from a shotgun blast during an attempted robbery.
In their motion for a new trial, Breest’s lawyers include affidavits from 1975 by two fellow prisoners of Carita and Breest who say that New Hampshire State Police visited them in prison shortly before the trial and asked them to testify that Breest confessed to the killing while he spoke to them and Carita. Both wrote that such a discussion never happened, that Carita was a known “liar,” and that they refused to testify.
Breest’s lawyers say this information was never shared with their client’s defense team at trial, and Breest’s petition to have the court later consider the affidavits was dismissed in 1983, when he represented himself in court proceedings.
Breest’s lawyers say the new testing of the dried blood scraped from underneath Randall’s fingernails clearly shows evidence of DNA from two men. One of the men’s DNA does not match Breest’s, while the other could belong to Breest but also would match as many as 1 of every 51 Caucasian males in the testing company’s database.
“Applying these statistics to United States Census Bureau 1970 census data shows that more than 2,000 men” in the two New Hampshire counties where Randall disappeared and where her body was discovered could also match that DNA profile, the lawyers wrote.
Edward Blake, a forensic scientist in California who has prepared and analyzed DNA evidence in several high-profile cases, questioned the new test results in an interview with the Globe, saying they do not appear to have been replicated by other scientists, a gold-standard in the DNA-testing industry.
Blake, who has not seen the DNA report from the testing company and only read details in the court motion, said it is “very unusual” for so many rounds of DNA testing to be done on “what is typically a minuscule amout of material from fingernail scrapings.” That, he said, raises questions about its reliability.
He also said the DNA results do not preclude the possiblity that some of the dried blood under Randall’s fingernails could have come from an earlier contact with a male friend, and the rest of the material could be Breest’s.
There is one other nagging question: Breest is a suspect in another homicide. Two years before the Randall murder, Luella Blakeslee, a 29-year-old school teacher, mysteriously disappeared. She and Breest had dated.
Police questioned Breest but he was never charged. Blakeslee’s skeletal remains were found in 1998 in Hopkinton, N.H., which is near Concord. The case remains open, and on the New Hampshire attorney general’s website of cold cases, it notes that “Breest remains a suspect.”
Breest has long denied any involvement in Blakeslee’s murder.
In a phone interview Friday from MCI-Shirley in Massachusetts, where he is imprisoned, Breest said he is more confident today than he has ever been about clearing his name.
“I never, in 40 years of litigation, had five attorneys sign off on one of my motions,” Breest said, referring to his lawyers from the New York law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, and co-counsel from the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
Breest said he never considered saying he was guilty to get a chance at parole in 1995.
“I didn’t take the deal because I believed I would prevail and prove I am innocent,” he said. “My wife has been married to me all these years. I am not going to bring disgrace on the family.”
When Breest went to prison in 1972, his youngest child was just 9 months old. Today, that son, Manuel Breest, is 42, and has four children of his own.
Through Robert Breest’s four decades behind bars, his wife Carol, who lives in Ayer, said she has never doubted his innocence, and has never considered ending their marriage.
“I keep saying God give me the strength,” she said. “I ask the Lord to bring about Bob’s relief, and that has been our prayer since the early 1970s.”Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.