North Hampton man argues for new trial in murder-for-hire killing caseBy JAMES A. KIMBLE
Union Leader Correspondent
November 28. 2012 11:11PM
BRENTWOOD - A North Hampton man convicted three years ago in the murder-for-hire killing of Jack Reid returns to court on Thursday to argue that he deserves a new trial because of ineffective assistance from his defense team.
A six-hour hearing for Robin Knight, 60, is expected to flesh out the legal strategies and decisions his former attorneys made in the months leading up to the 2009 murder trial. Attorneys Stephen Jeffco and Harry Starbranch are expected to testify.
Knight was convicted of accomplice to first-degree murder after an 11-day trial in Rockingham County Superior Court. He is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Knight helped lure Reid, 57, of Derry, to a horse barn in Deerfield on June 27, 2005, where he was surrounded by a group of men and bludgeoned to death with a three-pound sledgehammer.
"He's not guilty of what he was sent to state prison for," Knight's sister, Susan Kent, said in an interview on Wednesday. Kent said she believes her brother did not receive a fair trial after reading court-ordered depositions by Jeffco and Starbranch.
"I think a lot of it showed the inconsistencies between the two attorneys and what each other thought was their responsibility," Kent said.
The defense made a bid to have the testimony of Knight's cell mate, Henry Bellemare, thrown out of court more than a year after receiving approximately 40,000 pages of evidence, according to deposition transcripts. Chief Justice Tina Nadeau dismissed the request because it was beyond a court-imposed deadline.
Bellemare testified during the 2009 trial that Knight made incriminating statements to him regarding the murder while the two were in jail. Jeffco said he reviewed all the evidence provided by the state before taking the case to trial, and balked at the question of whether he was aggressive enough in pursuing Bellemare's statements early on in the case, according to the transcripts.
"When you say aggressive, do you mean filing frivolous motions - not based on fact?" Jeffco said during his Sept. 12 deposition. Jeffco maintained that pursuing an effort to have Bellemare's testimony thrown out of court did not become viable until months later. Bellemare said prior the trial that he believed he was an "agent" working for the state, but later backed away from that statement, according to court records.
Kent also took issue with Starbranch's acknowledgement that he did not review all the evidence and documents handed over to the defense.
"He didn't have a lot of the background," Kent said. "I was really shocked when he said that."
Starbranch said during an Aug. 31 deposition that he provided support to Jeffco, but did not consider Knight's case his responsibility. "I worked on the trial as requested by Mr. Jeffco," Starbranch said, according to a transcript of the deposition. "I was second chair. I was carrying his briefcase, you might say."
Knight's new lawyer Ted Lothstein is arguing Bellemare's criminal record, and his past of testifying as a state witness in a 2002 murder case should have been pursued earlier by the defense.
Lothstein said in court papers that Knight should have known prior to trial that one of his codefendants, Michael Benton, could not recognize a photograph of Knight prior to being called to the witness stand in April 2009. Benton, who is serving a 33-to-life prison sentence for the murder, was a state witness who came under attack by defense lawyers as someone who was falsely incriminating Knight in exchange for leniency.
State prosecutors are arguing Knight already acknowledged he was in the barn on the day of the murder, so Benton's admission of being unable to recognize Knight was not relevant before the trial. Prosecutors maintain Jeffco and Starbranch mounted a viable defense, which led to Knight's conviction.
Reid was murdered at the behest of multimillionaire businessman, John Brooks, who hired two groups of men for the killing in 2003 and 2005. Brooks is serving life without parole after being convicted in 2008 of capital murder. Nadeau, who presided over Knight's trial, will decide whether he is entitled to a second trial sometime after Thursday's hearing.