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Robert Breest, imprisoned for four decades, loses his bid for a new trial

Robert Breest attended a hearing in May.
Robert Breest attended a hearing in May.AP Photo/Jim Cole

A Massachusetts man imprisoned more than four decades for a murder he says he did not commit has lost his latest bid for a new trial.

Recently analyzed DNA evidence is “not so conclusive to warrant a new trial,” a New Hampshire judge ruled this week in the case of former Lowell resident Robert Breest, now 77 and battling heart problems.

The ruling comes after a 15-year string of appeals in the contentious case.

Breest’s wife, Carol, said Friday the fight to free her husband will continue.

“This will take longer, but I feel we will eventually prevail,” she said.

New Hampshire prosecutor Elizabeth Woodcock declined to comment.

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Breest was convicted in 1973 of murdering Susan Randall, an 18-year-old Manchester, N.H., woman who was working two jobs with dreams of saving enough money to attend fashion design school. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2000, his successful motion for DNA testing of evidence that was used to convict him — dried blood under Randall’s fingernails — marked the first time New Hampshire’s courts allowed DNA results in post-conviction proceedings.

Since then, several rounds of DNA testing on the degraded blood were inconclusive or failed to exclude Breest as the killer.

The current push for a new trial stems from testing in 2012 that used more sophisticated analysis to clearly show, according to Breest’s lawyers, that Randall was in a “violent struggle with at least two men” before she died, as opposed to a lone killer as prosecutors have long contended.

The findings show the presence of DNA from two men. The DNA from one does not match Breest’s. The DNA from the other could belong to Breest, but also could match as many as 1 in every 51 white men in the testing company’s database, Breest’s lawyers said.

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But prosecutors argued during a hearing in May that Randall might have encountered several men shortly before her death, which could account for finding DNA from someone other than Breest under her nails.

Randall could have borrowed a nail clipper, or had casual contact at a pizza parlor she visited the last evening she was alive, they said.

And, prosecutors maintained, the evidence could have been contaminated in the years since the trial.

Justice Larry Smukler agreed, writing in his latest ruling that evidence in the case could have been contaminated right from the start, immediately after Randall’s 1971 death.

“The possibility of DNA evidence and the concomitant need to prevent contamination and to acquire and preserve it properly would not have been considered in 1971,” Smukler wrote.

He said DNA detected from an additional male does not necessarily contradict the prosecutor’s contention that Breest was the lone killer. Smukler noted that two police officers lifted Randall’s battered body from the icy Merrimack River in Concord, and that a male doctor performed the autopsy. The DNA could have come from any of these men, Smukler suggested.

The judge declined to allow Breest’s attorneys, including a coalition of lawyers from the Innocence Project, to submit additional new information that called into question much of the 1970s-era science used by prosecutors in Breest’s original trial.

Those scientific methods were used during the trial to connect paint chips found on Randall to Breest’s car. The Innocence Project is a public policy organization that often uses DNA evidence to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates.

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Breest’s lead attorney, Ian Dumain, said his camp is likely t0 appeal.

“We’re reviewing the opinion, and our preliminary assessment is that there are a number of viable appeal issues,” he said.


Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.