Bishops appeal for mercy for accused priest killer
January 31, 2017 • Diocese of St. Augustine

by Lila Ross

Saying “justice needs to be tamed by mercy,” Bishop Felipé Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine and two brother bishops called Tuesday for the state of Georgia to drop the death penalty in the case of accused priest killer Steven J. Murray.

Bishop Felipe Estévez takes questions from the media following the press conference outside of the Richmond County Courthouse in Augusta, GA, on Tuesday, Jan. 31. (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

“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,” Bishop Estévez said.  “It is unnecessary and denies the dignity of all persons.”

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

Murray, 29, has admitted in interviews to killing Father Rene Robert, 71, 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 Father Robert, forced him into the trunk of his car and then shot him multiple times in rural Georgia. Murray was arrested in South Carolina driving Robert’s stolen car.

Pictured, from left: Seminarian Nicholas Bennett, Bishop Felipe Estévez and Father Ed Rooney carry boxes filled with petitions bearing more than 7,400 signatures to present to acting district attorney, Hank Syms, requesting the Death Penalty be removed as an option in the case against Steven James Murray, who filled Father Rene Robert in April 2016 . (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

District Attorney Ashley Wright said she would seek the death penalty against Murray despite pleas for a life sentence from the church and Father Robert himself.  In 1995, Father Robert signed a declaration of life, stating that he opposed the death penalty for any killer, including his own.

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

Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah spoke on behalf his religious order the Franciscans. Father Robert was ordained a Franciscan and lived in the spirit of the order after becoming a diocesan priest, he said.

“Father Robert shows us what the gospel teaches about being merciful,” Bishop 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.”

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said he was joining Bishop Estévez’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,” Archbishop Gregory said. “No human life loses its dignity.”

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

Pictured, from left: Bishop Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of Savannah and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta pose for a photo outside the office of acting district attorney, Hank Syms, in Augusta, GA. (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

“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.”

Archbishop 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, including Fathers Ed Rooney, John Gillespie and Tim Lindenfelser, joined the bishops.

(Note: Skip to 20:00 to watch the beginning of the press conference)