Published November 3, 2017
SAVANNAH—Three bishops from Georgia and Florida reiterated their opposition to the death penalty following the resolution of a court case involving the murder of a priest.
On Oct. 18 in the Burke County Courthouse in Waynesboro, Steven James Murray pleaded guilty to the murder of Father Rene Robert, thus avoiding the punishment of the death penalty. He will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Father Robert was a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine who had ministered in Georgia. Murray kidnapped and murdered the priest April 11.
In January 2017, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of the Savannah Diocese, and Bishop Felipe J. Estévez, of the Diocese of St. Augustine, held a press conference in Augusta asking that Murray be spared the death penalty.
The bishops noted that in 1995 Father Robert had signed a “Declaration of Life” stating that should he ever be the victim of homicide he did not want his killer to face execution.
“I am pleased an agreement has been reached between the State of Georgia and Steven Murray,” Bishop Estévez said. He said Murray deserves to be punished for the brutal murder of Father Robert.
“This decision is just and will help Father Robert’s loved ones find closure without the anguish of enduring years of court proceedings,” said Bishop Estévez.
“We were not asking that no penalty be imposed. It was not a question of clemency or a question of ignoring the severity of the murder of Father Robert,” Archbishop Gregory said. “But we also felt that taking another human life in response to the taking of a human life really adds nothing to the situation except that it further denigrates the value of a human life.”
Bishop Hartmayer said, “We also wanted to honor the wishes of Father Robert who somewhat prophetically years before had handwritten a declaration or a wish that he had that if he ever succumbed to a violent death that the perpetrator would not experience the death penalty. And although it wasn’t something that would be admissible to the court, it demonstrates the culture of life that the last three popes have endorsed as a part of our entire understanding of the sanctity of human life.”
Archbishop Gregory added, “Even the life of a horrendous murderer or someone who has enacted terrible violence on others even that life is precious in God’s sight. And while that may be very hard for people to hear, the opposite begins a very awkward and painful degeneration into saying whose life is valuable and whose life has lost value. And once you go down that road you are on a very, very difficult moral plane because there are people who would be willing to say that others have lost the right to life, other lives are not valuable. We begin obviously with looking at the innocent unborn, the child that is within the womb. But you also then encounter people who suggest that those who are critically ill or sick or older their lives have less value. We just cannot protect human life by distinguishing one life over another as though all life is not precious.”
Bishop Hartmayer spoke of the sense of revenge as it relates to the death penalty. “The Mosaic Law of the Old Testament was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and it was you know a proportional revenge for something that was committed to another,” he said. “But Jesus in the New Testament is quoted as saying, ‘You’ve heard that it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But now I tell you, you must love one another and love those who even persecute you.’”
He added, “And so as Pope Francis has recently said the whole idea of the death penalty is so contrary to the Gospel, it rejects the Gospel. And that is something that I think he’s very cognizant of and he’s very forceful in being consistent with the church’s understanding of life from the beginning until natural death.”
A video, “Steven Murray given life in prison instead of death penalty,” can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/239510273.