WAYNESBORO, Ga. – Without providing the answers his victim's family had been hoping for, Steven Murray apologized Wednesday as he stood before a judge and admitted to murdering a beloved St. Augustine priest.
Murray, 30, pleaded guilty in Burke County, Georgia, to kidnapping and killing Father Rene Robert and then dumping the priest's body in Georgia in April 2016.
Robert's sister had told News4Jax that she hoped Murray might offer some explanation for taking her brother's life, but he said during Wednesday's court hearing that he did not have an answer for why he killed Robert.
"He has problems, and unless you lived our life, you don't know what we went through," said Murray's sister, who declined to give her name.
She said it was a relief to see him smile at her Wednesday in court.
Judge James Blanchard accepted Murray's guilty plea, adding a phrase he typically reserves for death penalty cases: “May God have mercy on your soul.”
The plea agreement allows Murray to escape the death penalty -- which prosecutors had vowed to seek against him, despite Robert's adamant opposition to the death penalty.
Robert had signed a declaration of life in 1995, asking that if he was ever killed, his murdered not receive the death penalty.
"I think he's an extremely violent person, and, again, it's just a product of his environment," Robert's nephew, Shaun McAndrews, said. "He'll have to think about it for the rest of his life, and I hope he does -- every single day."
Robert's sister, Deborah Bedard, told News4Jax that it's a relief knowing the death penalty is off the table for Murray, because that's what Robert would have wanted.
"I feel this weight has been lifted off my shoulders and we're very happy," Bedard said. "My brother and I have been praying for this -- my other brother, Brian, we've been praying for this, because my brother, Father Rene, was so against the death penalty. I'm glad he's getting life in prison without parole."
District Attorney Natalie Paine acknowledged Wednesday that Robert's declaration of life carried "tremendous weight" in the state's decision to allow Murray to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole.
"Steven Murray absolutely deserved the death penalty for what he did. He's a very dangerous and violent man," Paine said. "(But) this wasn't just a document that (Robert) executed as a result of his employment or his affiliation with the church."
Paine said despite what Murray told the courtroom, she doesn't believe he's remorseful.
"I think if anything, Steven Murray feels sorry for himself, but he indicated he didn't have any remorse then, and I don't believe he has any remorse now," Paine said.
Murray waived all right to appeal his life sentence as part of the plea deal.
He did not speak as he left the courthouse.
Investigators said Robert was last seen about 1 p.m. on April 10, 2016. Sometime after that, prosecutors said, Murray asked for permission, then borrowed Robert’s car and got the priest to ride with him.
Murray finally told Robert they were leaving the state and heading to Murray’s hometown to see his children, prosecutors said.
On April 11, investigators said Murray was denied access to his 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, who live in Aiken County, South Carolina.
That’s when Murray made Robert get in the trunk of his own car, according to prosecutors.
Eventually, they came to Highway 56, near River Road in Burke County, Georgia, where prosecutors said Murray got Robert out of the trunk, shot him and left him dead on April 11, 2016, and then returned to Florida.
Prosecutors said Robert talked to Murray “in a way he wasn't accustomed to,” and that's when Murray shot him. They said he missed, shooting the priest in the left side, which caused Robert to fall to the ground.
Murray then shot him in the face.