Priest wrote letter before he was killed, asking forgiveness for his killer

Prosecutors decided to seek death penalty, disregarding letter

Photo Courtesy: MGN Online

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — The Rev. Rene Robert devoted his life to helping society’s most troubled, working with drug addicts and criminals, and even signing a “Declaration of Life” that called for his killer to be spared execution in the event of his murder.

More than two decades after filing that document, his wish will be tested.

FILE-This undated file photo provided by St. Johns County Sheriffs Office via Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, shows Father Rene Wayne Robert, a Roman Catholic priest in Florida whose body was found in rural east Georgia, in 2016.  (FHSMV/St. Johns County Sheriffs Office via AP, File)
FILE-This undated file photo provided by St. Johns County Sheriffs Office via Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, shows Father Rene Wayne Robert, a Roman Catholic priest in Florida whose body was found in rural east Georgia, in 2016. (FHSMV/St. Johns County Sheriffs Office via AP, File)

Robert’s body — shot multiple times — was found in the Georgia woods last year after a multistate manhunt led to the arrest of Steven Murray, a repeat offender Robert had been trying to help for months. Police said Murray asked the 71-year-old priest for a ride in Jacksonville, Florida, then kidnapped him and drove him across the state line. Days later, Murray led officers to the priest’s body, police said.

Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if Murray is convicted of murder, citing the slaying’s aggravated nature. That decision was based on the facts alone, Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright told The Associated Press.

“We don’t look at whether the victim is a priest, a nun, a philanthropist, a drug dealer or something else,” she said.

But Catholic officials from Georgia and Florida plan to protest Tuesday on the courthouse steps in Augusta, citing Robert’s own words opposing capital punishment.

“I request that the person found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered,” states the document Robert signed in 1995, notarized and witnessed by an attorney, that he insisted be kept in his personnel file.

Prosecutors frequently don’t have access to the wishes of a murder suspect’s victim when making such decisions, let alone a statement so clearly opposed to capital punishment. Even so, it’s one of many factors, and the choice ultimately is the prosecutor’s, said Georgia State University law professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, who lectures on capital punishment.

“There’s not a lot of legal precedent for this having any real impact,” she said.

On a more subjective level, she said, a prosecutor could decide not to seek the death penalty because of Robert’s statement. But ultimately the district attorney represents the state, not the victim, she added.

Murray’s attorney, Ryan Swingle, has been a public defender for 15 years, working exclusively on capital cases for the last four. He’s inspired by people like Robert, he said.

“It is both my personal and professional hope that his sincere wishes based on his faith will be honored,” Swingle said. He’s not sure what weight Robert’s declaration will be given by the state, court or jury, but said “it should be considered thoughtfully by everyone involved.”

Murray smiled and waved at TV cameras during his initial court appearance but has waffled between sorrow and defiance in public.

“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 after an early hearing in April. “I have mental problems, and I lost control of myself, and I apologize.”

Murray struck a harsh tone after another hearing in September: “Tell the world I say f— ’em,” he told reporters.

FILE-In this Thursday, April 14, 2016 file photo made available by the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, S.C., shows Steven James Murray of Jacksonville, Fla. (Aiken County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
FILE-In this Thursday, April 14, 2016 file photo made available by the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, S.C., shows Steven James Murray of Jacksonville, Fla. (Aiken County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)

Asked about his client’s statements, Swingle said “I think he’s expressed sincere remorse and has done so publicly, and I think that speaks for itself.”

Since his latest arrest, Murray has twice attempted to kill himself in jail. He didn’t respond to an interview request mailed to the Clayton County jail near Atlanta.

Murray grew up in South Carolina in an abusive family, said his sister Bobbie Jean Murray. A brother is in prison for murder, their father’s been in and out of prison, and the abuse led Murray to drugs and crime at an early age. He met the priest through a girlfriend, Ashley Shreve; the couple did drugs together, and Robert often gave them money, against their families’ wishes.

“They used him, no doubt,” Bobbie Jean Murray said. “He gave Ashley a credit card. They used Father Rene to get what they wanted, and I do feel like he was an enabler.”

Robert was so devoted to addicts that he’d lend them his car and walk home alone through high-crime neighborhoods, according to colleagues at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine, Florida.

His compassion for the poor compelled him to scrape leftovers from dinner plates into baggies to feed people in the streets, the colleagues said.

“He spent almost all of his money on others and then begged for himself,” said the Rev. John Gillespie, the first to report the fellow priest missing. “I teach to students: Do the things Rene did, but don’t do them the way he did them.”

Fran Gradick, Shreve’s mother, said a bank card in her daughter’s name, linked to Robert’s bank account, showed up in the mail after her daughter overdosed and went to jail, just before Robert disappeared.

“I begged him for years, this goes back 13 years, ‘please step away, please quit,'” Gradick said.

Robert always honored the privacy of the people to whom he ministered, even when relatives had questions, said the Rev. Heriberto Vergara, who worked with Robert in prisons. They considered their work with even the most violent criminals to be like any confession — a private spiritual matter.

“He had the conviction of a priest that these people also are important to God,” Vergara said in Spanish.

Robert’s sister, Deborah Bedard, initially wanted Murray to be executed but told The Florida Times-Union newspaper she changed her mind after learning of her brother’s letter.

Murray’s sister sees the letter as heaven-sent.

“I feel like that was an act of God,” Bobbie Jean Murray said. “I’m praying for a miracle, and God’s got it in his hands.”

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Brumback reported from Atlanta.

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