Catholic Bishops call on Georgia District Attorney to remove the Death Penalty from case involving murdered priest

Augusta, Ga. – Three Catholic bishops from Florida and Georgia will hold an 11 a.m. joint news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 31, outside the Augusta-Richmond Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Courthouse, 735 James Brown Blvd., in Augusta, Ga.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv. of the Diocese of Savannah, and Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, 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 a kidnapping with bodily injury and that it was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhumane in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim.”

On May 26, 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.

Ashley Wright was to leave her post as District Attorney today to be sworn in as a Superior Court Judge. Hank Syms is to replace her as Acting District Attorney and is expected to try the case.

In December, Bishop Estévez received signatures from nearly 7,000 Catholics in his diocese asking that Father Rene’s request in his “Declaration of Life” be honored by the Georgia courts. Punishment should include the victim’s wishes.

The collected signatures will be taken to Syms following the news conference.
Augusta is located in the Catholic Diocese of Savannah.


For further information, contact Paula Gwynn Grant for Archbishop Gregory at (404) 920-7344 or email pgrant@archatl.com; Barbara King for Bishop Hartmayer at (912) 201-4051, cell (912) 484-2320 or email bdking@diosav.org; and Kathleen Bagg for Bishop Estévez at (904) 262-1705 or email kbagg@dosafl.com.

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