By MICHAEL J. JOHNSON and JESSICA L. MARSALA, Special to the Bulletin | Published February 9, 2017
AUGUSTA—Three Catholic bishops from Florida and Georgia held a joint news conference on Jan. 31 at the Richmond County Courthouse to deliver petitions containing the names of 7,400 individuals who wished to see Diocese of St. Augustine priest Father Rene Robert’s “Declaration of Life” honored.
In his letter dated May 26 to Ashley Wright, then-District Attorney in Burke County, Georgia, Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine stated, “Father Rene was vehemently opposed to capital punishment and left a signed Declaration of Life document with his personal records declaring that, should he be a victim of homicide, he does not want his murderer executed no matter how heinous the crime or how much he may have suffered. This document has been shared with his family and they are fully aware of his wishes. We sympathize with the pain they suffer. However, another death will not provide the true healing and justice they are seeking.”
Wright did not reply to Bishop Estévez’s letter and indicated in a June 5, 2016 St. Augustine Record story that the contents of the “Declaration of Life”—which Father Robert signed and had notarized in 1995—would not have much sway over her decision to seek the death penalty against Steven James Murray who was indicted for the April 11 kidnapping and murder of Father Robert on May 25.
In her notice, Wright cited 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.”
“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.
Wright was sworn in as Superior Court Judge on Jan. 30 and Hank Syms who replaced her was appointed as temporary District Attorney on Jan. 31.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of the Diocese of Savannah, and Bishop Estévez addressed a crowd of approximately 40 including members of the national and local media on the plaza in front of the Richmond County Courthouse in Augusta.
Bishop Hartmayer read a letter to the district attorney that was written on behalf of Father Robert by the Minister Provincial of the Our Lady of the Angels province of Franciscan Friars Conventual, located in Ellicott City, Maryland. Father Robert himself was ordained as Franciscan and later became a diocesan priest.
In the letter, Father James McCurry, OFM Conv., said, “In a sense, Father Rene Robert died as a ‘martyr of mercy.’ We Franciscans respectfully ask that you honor this principle of mercy for which Father Rene dedicated his life. Please forbear recourse to the death penalty in your prosecution of the case of Mr. Steven James Murray. If he is guilty, may time eventually lead him to repentance and conversion, and may God have mercy on his soul.”
That sentiment was echoed by each of the bishops as they delivered their own statements.
“But what we as people of faith believe is that the Gospel mandate invites a change of heart to modify the feelings of vengeance and hatred and retribution,” Archbishop Gregory said. “It does not say that people who are guilty of serious crimes don’t deserve punishment. That’s not the issue. The issue is do we continue a cycle of violence as a response to violence.”
After the press conference, the bishops met with the district attorney.
Following that meeting, which was closed to the press, the bishops took questions.
When asked what he hoped the outcome would be if the accused was given a life sentence without parole Archbishop Gregory said, “We hope that he finds within his own heart to seek forgiveness from God.”
Bishop Hartmayer offered comments in an email regarding the meeting with the district attorney. “Our meeting with the acting District Attorney Hank Syms was very positive. Mr. Syms was helpful and informative regarding the judicial process for capital punishment cases. He assured us that he would pass on the letters and petitions requesting a sentence of life without parole onto the future district attorney,” Bishop Hartmayer said.
To contact the Augusta district attorney’s office with feedback, call 706-821-1135.
This article is reprinted with the permission of The Southern Cross, Diocese of Savannah.