Why this slain priest’s opposition to the death penalty matters

Savannah, Ga., Feb 2, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A priest who was murdered in 2016 had previously certified that he would not want his murderer executed. Three Catholic bishops say his voice should be heard.

The district attorney in Augusta, Georgia is seeking the death penalty for his accused killer.

“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,” Fr. Rene Robert said in 1995 in a signed and notarized “Declaration of Life” that reflected on the possibility he could be the victim of a capital crime.

The man believed to have killed him, Steven Murray, was indicted May 25, 2016 in Georgia by a Burke County Grand Jury for killing the priest April 11, 2016.

Father Robert, a retired priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, had been helping his accused killer for months as part of his prison ministry. Police believe Murray forced the priest into the trunk of his car, abducted him, and then murdered him in the woods of Georgia, shooting him multiple times. Murray was arrested driving the priest’s car in South Carolina. He led police to the priest’s body.

Three bishops emphasized Fr. Robert’s wishes at a Tuesday press conference held at the Richmond County Court House in Augusta, Georgia: Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of Savannah; and Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of Saint Augustine.

Bishop Hartmayer said they wanted to be the priest’s voice and make his declaration against the death penalty a part of the case.

“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, a past president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the slain priest was aware of the potential for violence among those he served, “but he cared for those people nonetheless,” said

“We know that every human life comes from the hand of God and has dignity that is never lost, that can’t be compromised,” he added. “No human life loses its dignity.”

The archbishop hoped that the accused killer would face a life sentence rather than the death penalty, and will seek God’s forgiveness.

“That could take many years but we are asking that he be given time to do it,” he said.

Murray, the accused killer, has made statements suggesting he is apologetic over the crime.

“If anybody loves Father Rene, they’ll forgive me because he was a man of God, and forgiveness is forgiveness,” Murray said in an April 2016 court appearance, according to WALB News.

At a previous court appearance he had smiled and waved to other people in the room.

“I have mental problems and I lost control of myself. I apologize,” he said.

District Attorney Ashley Wright of the Augusta Judicial District intends to seek the death penalty.

Bishop Estevez cited Fr. Rober’ts declaration against the death penalty in a May 26 letter to the district attorney.

He did not receive a reply to the letter. In December, the bishop received signatures of more than 6,400 Catholics in the Diocese of St. Augustine who asked the Georgia courts to honor the priest’s wishes.

Wright has indicated that the opinions are not relevant to her decision.

“When I make a decision to seek a particular punishment it is based upon fact and law, and not based on public opinion or sentiment,” Wright told the St. Augustine Record last year.

Attending the Jan. 31 press conference were priests and deacons from the three dioceses.

“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. “It is unnecessary and denies the dignity of all persons.”

Archbishop Gregory explained why the bishops were taking their stand.

“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,” he said.

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