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Slain Priest Rene Robert Left Letter Opposing Execution for Killer

Church Fights For Priest's Accused Killer 1:19

Two decades before he was kidnapped and shot dead, Florida priest Rene Robert signed a "declaration of life" stating that if he were ever killed, he would not want the culprit to face the death penalty.

Now, Catholic bishops hope that document will convince prosecutors to reverse their decision to pursue capital punishment for Steven James Murray, the ex-con accused of of murdering the priest last April in Georgia.

At a meeting Tuesday with the Augusta, Georgia District Attorney's office, they argued that Robert's beyond-the-grave statement that the death penalty is "morally wrong" should be respected.

"The wishes of the victim should be respected and be part of the decision-making," said Bishop Felipe Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, who was joined by Atlanta Archbishop Wilson Gregory and Savannah Bishop Gregory Hartmayer.

"It was violence that led to Father Rene's death. It would be tragic that there would be more violence, the death of another person for no reason. What do we accomplish?" Estevez told NBC News.

Acting DA Hank Syms described the meeting as "cordial" but did not comment on the bishops' request. His predecessor, Ashley Wright, who is now a judge, told NBC News she was unaware of Robert's declaration when she decided Murray deserved the death chamber.

But Wright, who said she could not comment on the specifics of the case in her new role, added that the DA "is supposed to be impervious to public opinion or public outcry about how a case should be handled."

Image: Steven Murray
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Steven James Murray. Aiken County Sheriff's Office via AP

Robert, 71, was a Franciscan priest who frequently ministered to former prisoners like Murray, a drug user who had been in and out of jail since he was a teenager.

On the night of April 10, Murray asked the priest for a ride then abducted him, drove him to Georgia, shot him and dumped his body, authorities said.

He told a local newspaper he never intended to kill the priest but panicked when he realized he had gone too far.

"I just f------ freaked out and I killed him," Murray, who has pleaded not guilty, told the St. Augustine Record in a series of jailhouse interviews.

The diocese said it found the declaration of life — a form letter he signed and had notarized in 1995 — while looking through his personnel file to prepare an obituary shortly after the slaying.

Church officials did not immediately alert prosecutors, but told them of the document's existence after Wright announced her intention to seek the death penalty in May.

Robert's sister, Deborah Bedard, said the discovery of the declaration tempered her wish to see the killer pay for the priest's life with his own.

"I'm torn," she told NBC News. "Part of me wants him [Murray] gone. Part of me wants him to suffer for the rest of his life."

Image:
The body of Father Rene Wayne Robert, a Roman Catholic priest, was found in rural east Georgia in 2016. St. Johns County Sheriffs Office via AP

She said she knew her brother opposed the death penalty, in line with the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, but she didn't realize he was so "adamant" until she learned of the document.

"I want to abide by his wishes, but it isn't my decision," Bedard said. "I just don't know what to feel."

Murray's lawyer, Ryan Swingle, said he could not predict whether the DA's office would reverse its decision before trial.

"I hope that Father Robert's declaration of life is given due consideration by everyone involved," he said. "I think it's a profound document from a person whose life was spent caring for others."

His client's reactions have been erratic. After one hearing, he said he had mental problems, apologized and asked for forgiveness. A few months later, he told reporters, "Tell the world, I say f--- 'em."

Murray told the St. Augustine Record that if he had to pick between life in prison or execution, he would choose death.

"This is the end of the line for me," he said.