Ray Duckler: Breest parole hearing postponed, adding to pain and confusion
A bailiff handcuffs Robert Breest following his request for DNA testing of the material under the nails of the victim in September 2000. Breest is convicted of killing Susan Randall in 1971. In 1973 he was sentenced to life in prison, with the first possibility of parole in 2013. Ken Williams Photo
Sally Hembree wondered if she’d heard right, that the man convicted of killing her sister wasn’t going to his parole hearing.
Something about a medical emergency, the security guard at the state prison told her. Something about a sudden trip to a hospital down in Boston.
Hembree’s eyes widened, her mouth forming an oval of astonishment. Postponed? After all the appeals and hearings and DNA tests and lawsuits?
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said Hembree, a petite, stylish widow from Manchester. “He’s given us 40 years of grief. I woke up every hour on the hour. I was geared for battle.”
The fight must come another day. Robert Breest, convicted of killing 18-year-old Susie Randall in 1971, of punching and kicking her to death, of throwing her off a bridge in Concord and onto the frozen Merrimack River, remains a presence in Hembree’s life.
No, closure would not have come if Breest had attended. Is there ever closure, really, in a case like this?
There will be another parole hearing, and then another one after that. There still might be another trial, something Breest is working on, and there still might be another DNA test.
But for Hembree and her
daughter, Paula, who also came here from Manchester, hearing the parole board deny Breest his freedom would have helped during this lifelong nightmare.
“Susan’s mother and father may be gone, but her niece, me, is still here,” said Paula, who works in customer relations for an insurance company. “And I will never, ever stop fighting to keep him in prison.”
Nor, it seems, will Breest stop fighting to get out. His is a story of legal maneuvering, of twists and turns since he was convicted of killing Randall, a rebellious free spirit who dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, in 1973.
He had picked her up hitchhiking late at night two years earlier. He was convicted based on forensic evidence and testimony. Paint chips from his car were found on Randall’s coat. Fibers from her coat were found in his car.
There was testimony from witnesses who said they saw Randall climb into what looked like Breest’s car, driven by a man who looked like Breest. There was blood evidence, on his boots and on his dashboard.
Soon after the verdict, though, at a time when Randall’s family hoped to begin the long healing process, Breest kept coming back.
The court mistakenly sentenced him to 18 years to life, rather than 40 to life under a new statute at the time called the psycho-sexual law. So Breest screamed double jeopardy when the court got the sentence right, six weeks later.
Then Breest argued that the psycho-sexual law had not been in place, both on the day Randall died and the day of his indictment, and that the original sentence of 18 years was the proper punishment.
The superior and Supreme Courts bought none of it, so Breest changed strategy, appealing through state and federal courts to have DNA tests performed on the blood found under Randall’s fingernails.
The last of four tests, performed five years ago, excluded 99.9 percent of the population, leaving Breest behind bars and, Sally and Paula thought, out of options.
At the time, state prosecutor Will Delker, now a superior court judge, said, “This hopefully will end his relentless litigation. There isn’t any room for any more doubt about this verdict, not that there ever was.”
But in an email yesterday, Jeffery Strelzin, the senior assistant attorney general, said Breest isn’t through.
“Some lawyers on Breest’s behalf are still pursuing attempts to get him a new trial,” Strelzin wrote. “Nothing has been filed yet, but they have indicated they may. They requested a complete copy of his file, which is being sent to them.”
The story gets stranger in that Breest has been his own worst enemy, because the old statute, repealed in 1974, called for a 40-year minimum, minus time for good behavior. In other words, Breest might have been paroled as early as 1995, if he had agreed to enter a sex-offender program, among other conditions.
Only his refusal to admit guilt and enter the program has kept Breest in prison. Andrea Goldberg, the executive assistant for the prison’s adult parole board, said as much yesterday.
“If he does everything within the parole plan, if he met all of the conditions, more than likely he would be paroled,” she said.
As for why the board called a parole hearing yesterday, Goldberg wasn’t sure, saying, “To get the record straight after so long, I imagine.”
Meanwhile, Sally and Paula were told Breest had an unknown medical emergency. They sat in a prison waiting room, and later in Goldberg’s office, upstairs.
They fired questions at Goldberg and Lynda Ruel, a victim advocate for the state, wondering about Breest’s chances for parole, his chances for future court appearances, his chances for another DNA test, his absence from a parole hearing that they wouldn’t have missed for the world.
And, most important, they wondered when this 74-year-old man who maintains his innocence would be back for another parole hearing.
Goldberg said that will happen when Breest is healthy enough to attend.
“We need to know when that is,” Paula said. “We need to prepare ourselves again.”