Plea deal reached to spare life of priest killer, according to statement

A disturbed Jacksonville man who abducted and killed 71-year-old Father Rene Robert last year is expected to plead guilty later this month effectively avoiding trial and taking the death penalty off the table.

 

The Diocese of St. Augustine sent a statement Thursday morning that an agreement between the state of Georgia and Steven James Murray, who was 28 at the time of the killing, had been reached. District Attorney Natalie Paine has not returned two phone calls seeking comment and in a text message to The Augusta Chronicle, she said she had no comment.

According to the statement, Murray has agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life in prison without the possibility of parole sentence. A sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 18 in Waynesboro, Ga., according to court records.

After dozens of exclusive interviews with the Florida Times-Union last year, the newspaper in its “Road to a Killing” story explored Murray’s tragic upbringing and how his moral descent ended in the horrific death of Robert, a priest of the Diocese of St.Augustine. Robert was one of the only adults whom Murray could count on to help him in a time of need.

Murray told the paper that Robert often let him use his car and gave him money. He said he was on drugs last April while driving around with Robert, when he decided to head north to see his children in South Carolina. While en route, Murray said he forced Robert into the trunk of his own car and told him to be quiet. He said he kept hearing Robert’s voice telling him he was going to go back to prison. Murray said he panicked, stopped in Georgia and shot him.

A manhunt for Murray and the priest lasted days and through three states. Shortly after his arrest, Georgia officials said they were seeking the death penalty, something that Robert was against. In 1995, Robert signed a Declaration of Life and left it with his personal records. It states that should he ever become a victim of homicide, he does not want those convicted to be executed no matter how heinous the crime nor how much he may have suffered. Because of this and that the church as a whole believes the death penalty only contributes to an ever-growing disrespect for the sacredness of human life, the diocese pressed prosecutors in Georgia to no longer seek the death penalty.

“I am pleased an agreement has been reached between the state of Georgia and Steven Murray,” said Bishop Felipe Estevez of the diocese in the statement. Murray, the statement says, deserves to be punished. “This decision is just and will help Father Robert’s loved ones find closure without the anguish of enduring years of court proceedings.”

Crystal Murray, Steven Murray’s youngest sister, said her brother needs psychological help, something she said he is not getting in the Clayton County Jail. Crystal Murray said she received a postcard from her brother the other day that said: “Life sometimes gets tricky when there’s drugs in the way. It is going to be all OK. I love you with all my heart.”

 

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