In accused priest killer's case, bishops urge mercy, reject death penalty

Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine, Fla., speaks Jan. 31 at a joint news conference in Augusta, Ga., where the bishops of three dioceses called on Georgia prosecutors to remove the death penalty from the case of Steven Murray, accused of murdering Fr. Rene Robert of the St. Augustine diocese last April. (CNS/St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

Augusta, Georgia — Saying "justice needs to be tamed by mercy," Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine, Fla., and two brother bishops called Jan. 31 for the state of Georgia to drop the death penalty in the case of accused priest killer Steven J. Murray.

"We have great respect for the legal system and we believe Murray deserves punishment for the brutal murder, but the sentence of death only perpetuates the cycle of violence," Estevez said at a news conference. "It is unnecessary and denies the dignity of all persons."

Estevez, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta and Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of Savannah, along with priests, deacons and other supporters, gathered outside the Richmond County Courthouse in Augusta to issue their appeal.

Murray, 29, has admitted in interviews to killing Fr. Rene Robert, 71, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, who befriended him as part of his prison ministry. He is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life or death.

On April 11, Murray kidnapped Robert, forced him into the trunk of his car and then allegedly shot him multiple times in rural Georgia. Murray was arrested in South Carolina driving Robert's stolen car.

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District Attorney Ashley Wright said she would seek the death penalty against Murray despite pleas for a life sentence from the church and Robert himself. In 1995, Robert signed and had notarized a "Declaration of Life," stating that he opposed the death penalty for any killer. It was kept in his personnel file.

He stated that should he die as a result of a violent crime, he did not want the individual or individuals found guilty of homicide for his killing to be subject to, or put in jeopardy of, the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much he may have suffered.

Wright has recently been named a Superior Court judge. After the news conference, the bishops talked privately to Hank Syms, acting district attorney, and Estevez gave him petitions with 7,400 signatures.

Hartmayer spoke on behalf his religious order, the Franciscans. Robert was ordained a Franciscan and later became a diocesan priest who lived in the spirit of the religious order, he said.

"Robert shows us what the Gospel teaches about being merciful," Hartmayer said. "He understood the plight of the poor, the violent, the sociopath. He treated them with compassion. He understood the risks and dangers of ministering to convicts. He died as a martyr of mercy."

Gregory said he was joining Estevez's appeal for mercy.

"We know that every human life comes from the hand of God and has dignity that is never lost, that can't be compromised," Gregory said. "No human life loses its dignity."

The bishops said that if Murray is convicted, he could be sentenced to life without parole.

"We hope if he is granted a life sentence that he find within his own heart and spirit to ask for God's forgiveness. That could take many years, but we are asking that he be given time to do it.

"We do it because we love our faith, we love our country, and we hope our nation will take the lead in preserving, defending and protecting every human life."

Gregory said if their appeal is turned down, "we will work harder. We won't be deterred by a negative decision. We will be reinvigorated to work harder."

Priests and deacons from the three dioceses joined the bishops.


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