Bishops speak against death penalty in priest's killing

Georgia intends to seek exectution in killing of St. Augustine priest

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Catholic officials from Savannah to St. Augustine made an emotional plea Tuesday, urging a Georgia prosecutor to reverse the decision to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a Florida priest.

Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright decided to seek the death penalty against Steven Murray, who faces charges in the April 2016 killing of the Rev. Rene Robert, a retired St. Augustine priest. Investigators said Murray kidnapped Robert and drove him to northeast Georgia, where he shot him. The priest’s body was found in a wooded area outside of Augusta just over a week after he was last seen.

Catholic bishops held a news conference Tuesday morning outside the Richmond County Courthouse. They noted that Robert left a signed and notarized "Declaration of Life," saying that if he were to suffer a violent death, he wouldn't want the person responsible to be executed.

"If convicted, Mr. Murray deserves punishment for the brutal murder of Father Rene, but imposing a punishment of death as a consequence of killing only perpetuates a cycle of violence in our community," said Bishop Felipe Estevez of the St. Augustine Diocese. "The death penalty only contributes to disrespect for human life and seeks a sense of vengeance rather than justice."

In his retirement, Robert worked with prisoners and ex-offenders, trying to help get their lives back on track.

"He was well aware of the potential violence that might involve his ministry but he cared for those people nonetheless," Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory said.

Wright, who said that she considered the facts in the case and the aggravated nature of the slaying when she decided to seek the death penalty, was recently appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal as a judge on the Augusta Circuit Court.  

Henry Syms, who was sworn in Tuesday morning as interim district attorney, met with the Catholic bishops after their news conference, then released a statement:

These gentlemen asked to meet with me so that we could discuss the State's decision to seek the death penalty regarding the alleged murder of Father Rene Robert by Steven Murray in Burke County. We had a very cordial conversation, during which we talked about the process by which such a case proceeds and my role as interim District Attorney."

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