|Steven J. Murray|
"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 Estevez said at a news conference. "It is unnecessary and denies the dignity of all persons."
Bishop Estevez, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta and Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of Savannah, along with priests, deacons and other supporters, gathered outside the Richmond County Courthouse in Augusta to issue their appeal.
Murray, 29, has admitted in interviews to killing Father Rene Robert, 71, a priest 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 allegedly shot him multiple times in rural Georgia. Murray was arrested in South Carolina driving Robert's stolen car.
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 and had notarized a "Declaration of Life," stating that he opposed the death penalty for any killer. It was kept in his personnel file.
He stated that should he die as a result of a violent crime, he did not want the individual or individuals found guilty of homicide for his killing to be subject to, or put in jeopardy of, the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much he may have suffered.
Wright has recently been named a Superior Court judge. After the news conference, the bishops talked privately to Hank Syms, acting district attorney, and Bishop Estevez gave him petitions with 7,400 signatures.
Bishop Hartmayer spoke on behalf his religious order, the Franciscans. Father Robert was ordained a Franciscan and later became a diocesan priest who lived in the spirit of the religious order, 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 Gregory said he was joining Bishop Estevez'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.
"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 joined the bishops.
Source: Catholic News Service, Feb. 2, 2017
Catholic bishops don’t want death penalty in Murray case
The Catholic bishop of the diocese that covers the Augusta area is joining the Catholic bishop of St. Augustine, Fla., in asking the district attorney not to seek a death sentence for the man accused of killing an elderly priest.
The Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah are holding a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday outside the Richmond County Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse.
In a news release from St. Augustine, the Catholic bishops announced they are calling on District Attorney Ashley Wright to reverse her decision to seek the death penalty if Steven J. Murray is convicted of murder in Burke County Superior Court for the killing of the Rev. Rene Robert, a St. Augustine priest.
Wright is to be sworn in as an Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge on Monday afternoon. Until the governor appoints an attorney to replace her as district attorney, Chief Assistant Hank Syms will be in charge of the office.
Estevez wrote to Wright in May about Robert’s signed and notarized four-page “Declaration of Life” that declares should he die by another person’s hand regardless of the circumstances, he did not want that person subjected to the death penalty. Estevez said he never received a reply from Wright.
As Wright told the St. Augustine Record, the decision to seek a death sentence if a jury convicts Murray of murder is based on the facts of the case and the law, not public opinion or sentiment.
Murray is accused of killing Robert during a criminal rampage in April that ended with Murray locking the 71-year-old priest in the truck of his car and taking him to a remote spot on River Road in Burke County. The priest who had ministered to Murray was shot and left to die alone.
In December, Estevez received a petition signed by nearly 7,000 Catholics in his diocese asking that Robert’s request be honored.
Source: The Augusta Chronicle, Sandy Hodson, January 26, 2017
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