Friends of a slain Florida priest say that his accused killer should be spared the death penalty, because it is what the victim himself wrote that he would want more than 20 years ago.
The body of the Rev. Rene Robert was found in a wooded area outside Augusta, Ga., in April, with an autopsy revealing that multiple gunshots killed the 71-year-old priest. Police charged Steven James Murray, a 28-year-old man with an extensive criminal background, with the murder.
Authorities say Mr. Murray kidnapped Father Robert in the priest’s car, driving him to Georgia before forcing him into the trunk and committing several robberies. Then, they say, Mr. Murray shot Father Robert several times before dumping his body and driving alone to South Carolina, where he was arrested.
Mr. Murray, who has been jailed repeatedly and who admits to using heroin and cocaine, said in a newspaper interview in July that he killed Father Robert before eventually leading police to his body. He pled not guilty to the crime in September.
Father Robert worked in prison ministry, which is how he became acquainted with Mr. Murray. The one-time Franciscan met his accused killer through one of Mr. Murray’s friends, another drug user who warned Father Robert not to get entangled with him.
In August, authorities in Georgia announced they would seek the death penalty against Mr. Murray.
But the Rev. John Gillespie, a colleague of Father Robert in the Diocese of St. Augustine, said that his friend made his opposition to the death penalty clear in a notarized letter he signed in 1995.
“Father Rene was strongly opposed to capital punishment and left in his files, written 20 some years ago, the important letter in which he says that if anyone should do me harm in the future and that person is facing judgment, I do not want in my name, the capital punishment death sentence," Father Gillespie told WJXT.
The letter, called a “Declaration of Life” and signed by the priest, stated, “should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstance, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered.”
The letters carry no legal weight, but anti-death-penalty advocates say the wishes of victims of violent crimes should be taken into account by prosecutors.
In recent weeks, a petition has been circulating in Jacksonville-area churches in an attempt to convince Augusta-Richmond County District Attorney Ashley Wright not to seek the death penalty. She has said she has no plans to back down.
On Nov. 30, the Diocese of St. Augustine is hosting a special prayer service highlighting the church’s opposition to capital punishment.
Father Gillespie said the event isn’t directly tied to Father Robert’s murder, but that it takes on special meaning in light of it.
“He really stood out as someone concerned to help the helpless, the needy, the homeless, [and] the poor,” Father Gillespie told the St. Augustine Record. “Among the people that were of concern to him were people threatened with the death penalty.”
The event, called Cities for Light, is part of an international movement started by the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community to fight capital punishment. More than 2,000 cities have signed on to the cause and the vigil will be the second in St. Augustine.
Bishop Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine said that event organizers want authorities in Florida to halt executions in that state, where close to 400 inmates are currently awaiting execution.
“Whenever we can choose life over death, we are called to do so,” the bishop said in a press statement. “Duval County’s high use of the death penalty raises grave concerns and goes completely against promoting a culture of life, since means other than execution are available to keep society safe.”
In addition to the prayer service, which will feature speakers including Father Gillespie, local churches are being urged to ring bells on Wednesday night.
Bishop Estevez wrote a letter to the editor of The Record in May calling on prosecutors in Georgia not to seek the death penalty, noting, “Father Rene was vehemently opposed to capital punishment.”
“Father Rene was such a strong advocate for life—so much so that Father Rene felt it was important enough to document his wishes in writing and to leave them in my care to ensure that they are shared with the appropriate prosecuting authorities and also the community,” the bishop wrote.
“I hope Father Rene’s written wishes will be given great weight by the Burke County prosecutors,” he continued, “and that Murray’s sentencing will be passed in accordance with his wishes.”
But Ms. Wright, the Georgia prosecutor, told the paper that her “oath actually prohibits me from making decisions based on what the community demands or rejects” when it comes to which charges defendants face.
Father Robert’s case is not the first time that the stated wishes of a victim or the victim’s family clashes with what authorities seek in terms of punishment.
A similar case played out in Colorado in 2014 when the parents of a murdered prison guard urged prosecutors to end a decade-long quest to bring the death penalty against the accused murderer. Eventually, they agreed, offering a plea for life in prison without parole in exchange for dropping the death penalty charge.
The victim’s father, Robert Autobee, said at the time that he was pleased with the deal because his son Eric “would want to be remembered as someone who saved a life, not took a life."
A hearing against Mr. Murray was scheduled to take place on Dec. 2 in Georgia, but earlier this week a judge granted a delay to the defense to examine evidence.
Father Robert’s sister, Deborah Bedard, said she initially wanted Mr. Murray to face the death penalty, but that she changed her mind when she discovered her brother’s letter.
Her brother’s accused killer, Ms. Bedard told the Florida Times-Union, “doesn’t know how much we loved our brother; how much so many people loved my brother, and I know my brother would be proud of me for saying this: I don’t want him to get the death penalty now,” she said. “We weren’t brought up to hate people and I don’t hate Steven; I’m very, very angry, but that is subsiding.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.