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A plea to spare his own killer's life

A prosecutor is planning to seek the death penalty for the gunman who killed a Florida priest in the woods of Georgia.  The victim, however, never wanted that to happen.

More than 20 years before he was shot to death in 2016, Rev. Rene Robert signed a "Declaration of Life," specifying that if he was ever the victim of a homicide, that his killer's life should be spared.  That 1995 document is front and center now as the district attorney in the Augusta (GA) judicial circuit prosecutes accused gunman Steven Murray.

“Should I die as a result of a violent crime,” Robert’s 1995 document reads, “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."

Wilton D. Gregory, the Archbishop for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, says Robert did not know he would die a violent death, but that his document planned for it just in case. Robert, he says, spent much of his priesthood working with addicts and ex-offenders.

"They were people who had either emotional, psychological, or even criminal backgrounds," Gregory tells WSB.  "So I don't know if it displayed all of the characteristics of someone who knew what would happen, as someone who presumed that it might happen." 

Murray is one of the people Robert had been helping.  Prosecutors say Murray kidnapped the 71-year-old priest from St. Augustine, Florida in April of 2016, forced Robert into the trunk of his own car, and drove him into Burke County, Georgia, where he shot and killed him.  

Murray, then 28, has claimed that the priest went with him willingly as Murray headed to South Carolina to find his two children.  The priest, he told a Florida reporter, got into the trunk willingly because Murray did not want anyone to see him.  He told the Times-Union that after his children’s grandfather told him he could not see the kids, he kept driving, only to hear Robert getting upset in the trunk.  Murray began to panic, and after driving across the state line into Georgia, he stopped the car and walked behind Robert into the woods.  

Several days later, Murray was arrested, and after a few more days, led police to the priest’s body in the woods.

“The cause of death is multiple gunshot wounds,” Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said then.

After a hearing in April, Murray apologized.

"I'm very sorry and if anybody really loves Father Rene, they'll forgive me because he was a man of God and forgiveness is forgiveness," he said.  

Months later, following a hearing in September in which he pleaded not guilty to Robert’s fatal shooting, Murray’s tone was very different. 

“Tell the world I say f*** ‘em,” he said to Augusta’s WRDW News.

Robert long opposed capital punishment, and would pray at protests with others in St. Augustine whenever an execution was scheduled in Florida.

WSB legal analyst Ron Carlson says it's a unique and bizarre legal question, and that no legal expert he's talked to has ever seen such a document.  Carlson point out that it's not binding and does not require a prosecutor to take the death penalty off the table.

"It's not just a crime against Father Robert," says Carlson, "it is also deemed to be a crime against the peace and dignity of the State of Georgia. That's why the DA in Augusta is not signing off, simply, in the face of that letter."  

Gregory says he understands that the state has the right to pursue the death penalty, but he contends that capital punishment is never the answer.

"The death penalty only increases violence by inflicting violence once again," says Gregory.  The Archbishop says this does not mean that Robert's killer should go unpunished.

"Justice in this case would certainly mean that the individual would be subject to prison without the possibility of parole," says Gregory.

Published reports say Robert's sister was at first adamant that her brother's killer get the death penalty--until she read the Declaration of Life.  Murray's sister is hopeful that the prosecution will give a lot of weight to Robert's document, which she told the Associated Press she believes was God-sent.

WSB asked Gregory his thoughts on that.

"Certainly, Father Robert's end-of-life instructions causes us to return to a careful--and I hope, balanced--evaluation of our legal system," he says.  "If that's divinely inspired, then I'll accept her interpretation."

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