Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Bishops call on district attorney to remove death penalty from murdered priest’s case

By SOUTHERN CROSS STAFF | Published January 27, 2017

AUGUSTA—Three Catholic bishops from Florida and Georgia will hold an 11 a.m. joint news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the Richmond County Courthouse in Augusta.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of the Diocese of Savannah, and Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, are calling on Ashley Wright, district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, to reverse her decision to seek the death penalty in the case against Steven James Murray in the Superior Court of Burke County.

Steven Murray was indicted on May 25, 2016, by a Burke County grand jury for the April 11, 2016, killing of Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

District Attorney Wright filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty citing four aggravating circumstances in the retired priest’s murder, including that it was committed during the commission of kidnapping with bodily injury and that it was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim.”

On May 26, 2016, Bishop Estévez wrote to Wright explaining that Father Robert left a signed and notarized four-page “Declaration of Life” declaring that should he die as a result of a violent crime, he does not want the person or persons 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.

Bishop Estévez did not receive a reply to his letter from Wright.

In a June 5, 2016, St. Augustine Record story, Wright gave the reporter no indication that the contents of the Declaration of Life would have much sway over her decision making.

“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,” she said.

In December, Bishop Estévez received signatures from more than 6,400 Catholics in his diocese asking that Father Rene’s request in his Declaration of Life be honored by the Georgia courts. The collected signatures will be taken to Wright following the Jan. 31 news conference.

Those interested in supporting the effort to remove the death penalty from the case against the accused of the murder of Father Rene are encouraged to attend the 11 a.m. Jan. 31 press conference outside the Richmond County Courthouse.

For more information, contact the Diocese of Savannah communications director, Barbara King, at 912-201-4051 or