2017-10-11 / Front Page

Church leaders claim plea deal reached in the 2016 priest murder

Steven Murray Steven Murray Despite assertions by officials of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine that a deal has been reached, District Attorney Natalie Paine said Tuesday that she cannot confirm that Steven James Murray has agreed to plead guilty to the April 2016 murder of Father Rene Robert.

Bishop Felipe Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine said last week that Murray had agreed to plead guilty to the murder for a sentence of life in prison. "I am pleased that an agreement has been reached between the State of Georgia and Steven Murray," the Bishop stated. "This decision is just and will help Father Robert's loved ones find closure without the anguish of enduring years of court proceedings."

Paine did confirm that a hearing will be held at the Burke County Courthouse on Wednesday, October 18, but did not say it is for sentencing. Former District Attorney Ashley Wright, now a Superior Court Judge, indicated at the time of Murray's indictment that the death penalty would be sought in the case.

Murray is accused of kidnapping Father Rene Robert of St. Augustine and then shooting him to death before dumping his body in Burke County woods. He pleaded not guilty to the murder.

In January of this year bishops for the dioceses of Savannah, Atlanta and St. Augustine as well as a number of priests from both states gathered in Augusta to publicly ask that Murray's life be spared. On the steps of the Augusta Judicial Center Bishop Estevez said, "we hold great respect for the legal system and its dedicated personnel. If convicted, Mr. Murray deserves punishment for the brutal murder of Father Rene, but imposing a sentence killing only perpetuates a cycle of violence in our community."

In 1995 Father Robert signed a "Declaration of Life" requesting that no death sentence be sought if he should be killed by another, regardless of how heinous the death. Robert actively ministered to those leaving prisons and jails, and Murray was one of those he had helped.

At the gathering in January, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah said that Robert "was a man of mercy who ministered to the poor and society's misfits. He understood the risks and dangers.

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