James L. Breeden admits he has "probably cased half of Alexandria at one time or another" but insists he is innocent of the March 6, 1976, slayings in a Roy Rogers Family Restaurant.

"It's hard for me to accept something I'm not guilty for," said Breeden, 49, in an interview this week at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. "It's a hell of a lot harder after 10 years."

Breeden, whose record shows numerous convictions for burglary dating back to 1953, is serving five life sentences plus 20 years for killing four employes, wounding another and robbing the restaurant on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax County. He may be eligible for parole in a few years.

Arguments over his conviction have continued for a decade.

Although Breeden's direct route of appeals has been exhausted, attorney Marvin D. Miller has presented the federal court in Richmond a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a legal mechanism used to attack the validity or duration of incarceration by showing a defect in the trial. A similar attempt on the state level failed.

But last fall a federal judge ordered the assistant attorney general now handling the case, Frank S. Ferguson, to help Miller locate three people who were in the restaurant just prior to the slayings and were interviewed by investigators.

"It's incredible to me that it's gone the way it has," Ferguson said at his Richmond office, but added: "The record that exists now is sufficient to dispose of all claims."

Miller said he wants to know more about what those three people told police about seeing two suspicious men in the restaurant before it closed, which he claims conflicts with the prosecution's theory presented during the trial. Ferguson denies that assertion. Miller's petition is pending while the search continues.

"I can't say that he doesn't know anything about it," Miller said of Breeden. "But I'm absolutely convinced that he did not go in there and shoot anybody."

Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who prosecuted the case at Fairfax County Circuit Court, is equally convinced that he did. "It was a strong case," he said yesterday.

Horan centered his case on three key prosecution witnesses: Julie Nakpodia, the sole survivor who picked Breeden out of a police lineup; Samuel M. Burns, an admitted drug user who testified that he and Breeden cased the restaurant, and John B. McGuire, another admitted drug user and dealer who testified Breeden asked him by telephone before the slayings to "do a job" with him.

The case was unsolved for weeks, Horan said, until Burns walked into the Fairfax County Police Department headquarters. Of Nakpodia, Horan said: "She nailed him [Breeden] and she never batted an eye."

Breeden argued that he had been playing cards with relatives.

Horan said Miller is going through the motions and "criminal cases today virtually never end." Of the latest petition, Horan said he's heard it all before. "There's nothing new under the sun in this case," he said. "When they appealed they must have made 90 allegations of error . . . . We've had more hearings in this case than I've ever had."

"We filed a ton of motions. We went crazy," said Alan J. Cilman, one of Breeden's attorneys at his trial, who is now practicing law in San Francisco. He said a day never goes by when he doesn't think about the case, which he said soured him on practicing law for a while.

"Here's the thing," Cilman said in a telephone interview. "Jim Breeden did burglaries. He did a lot of them . . . . " Cilman claims the attitude at the time was to get Breeden.

"It just felt horrid," Cilman said of the trial. "And there I was representing an innocent guy and he was going to jail forever . . . . It was awful. It was awful."

Breeden, wearing a warm-up jacket, his hair cropped close to his head, said his long history of crime probably made him an easy target for police.

"I didn't think I was going to be convicted. I never dreamed," Breeden said. "I was in total shock when they came back with a guilty verdict . . . . I think it took me nearly three years to realize I'd been convicted."