Robert Breest has been locked up since 1973 for the killing of 18-year-old Susan Randall of Manchester.
Since then the 77-year-old Massachusetts carpenter has always maintained his innocence.
During the trial 42 years ago, the state argued Breest picked up Randall when she was hitchhiking late one night in Manchester, brutally beat her, and then dumped her body into the Merrimack River in Concord.
Sally Hembree, who is Randall’ sister, attended the hearing. She says at the time of her death Randall just graduated from high school and was going to start classes at the Chamberlain School of Design in Boston that fall.
“She had no life, she wasn’t given a life. He took it from her,” Hembree told NHPR.
But the defense argues the key part of the story -- that Breest acted alone – does not stand. That is after a blood sample found underneath the victim’s fingernails was retested in 2012, finding DNA from at least two males.
Attorney Ian Dumain told the court this undercuts the state’s case entirely. “The evidence at trial and the state’s narrative at trial all supported that single assailant theory of the case.”
But the state says this DNA could have come from a “casual male contact” such as a man she might have bumped into at the pizza parlor she was at the night she disappeared. Or that due to the fact it was four decades since the sample was collected, it could have been contaminated.
Elizabeth Woodcock of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office argued that either way this doesn’t clear Breest. “What can be said about all these tests at the end of the day, is that Mr. Breest cannot be excluded,” she told the court.
The defense also claimed this evidence undoes a crucial part of the state’s original case -- Breest’s jailhouse confession to longtime criminal David Carita saying he acted alone. Breest denied confessing at trial.
His lawyers believe without that confession – a conviction would have been in question. And that’s all the defense needs to prove to win a new trial.
Buzz Scherr, a professor at UNH’s School of Law, is part of Breest’s legal team.
He notes if Breest had confessed, he would likely have been released on parole years ago. “Well it is a profound matter of principle and his own sense of – his own personal integrity. He is not going to admit to something he didn’t do.”
Breest is being held in a Massachusetts prison where he can be closer to his family. Breest's wife, Carole of 44 years, attended the hearing along with three of their children.
“Justice needs to be done – he is a very loving individual, a very caring individual. My husband was moving furniture and then he came home and set up the furniture – it has nothing to do with the girl that was killed,” she said after the hearing.
But Hembree disagrees, saying Breest killed her sister and deserves to remain in prison.
“I sat through the entire trial over 40 years ago – every single day – I’ve been through all this ridiculousness he has put the state through, the judicial system through. I’m really tired of him, I’m tired of him. He did it. I know he did it. He knows he did it.”
The hearing is set to last two days, but a decision is not expected until sometime this summer.