Murray to plead guilty in priest slaying

The former Aiken man accused of killing a priest is scheduled to plead guilty Wednesday in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

 

Steven J. Murray, 30, will make what should be his last appearance in Burke County Superior Court, a short drive from where Murray said he shot to death the Rev. Rene Robert of St. Augustine, Fla., in April 2016.

Murray, a petty criminal and drug user from Aiken, moved to Florida several years ago. Not long after, he was behind bars again, this time for dealing in stolen property in 2012. He was the kind of person that the 71-year-old priest spent his retirement years ministering, according to friends.

Robert served as a Franciscan priest for decades before retiring in 2012. Instead of taking up a hobby or relaxing, leaders of the Catholic dioceses in Georgia and Florida said Robert ministered to the poor and society’s misfits. They came to Augusta in January to petition the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty for Murray.

Robert actively opposed the death penalty, and in 1995 he signed a personal “Declaration of Life,” a document that requests no death sentence be imposed if he should be killed by another, regardless of how heinous the death.

Former District Attorney Ashley Wright, now a Superior Court judge, filed notice of her intention to seek the death penalty for Murray if he was convicted of murder in Robert’s death, which she contended was committed during a kidnapping and aggravated battery.

According to Murray’s statements to investigators and to a Florida Times-Union reporter, Murray on April 10, 2016, decided to drive Robert’s car to Aiken so he could visit his children. Robert likely didn’t know where Murray was headed when he agreed to go for a ride, authorities said.

When Murray was denied access to his children, he forced Robert into the trunk of the car while Murray allegedly burglarized several homes, setting one on fire.

On rural River Road in Burke County just off Highway 56, Murray pulled to the side of the road and removed Robert from the trunk. He fatally shot the elderly priest at the tree line then got back in the vehicle and returned to Florida.

On April 12, 2016, Murray is suspected of leading Florida police on a chase. The next day he was spotted in Aiken near Snipes Pond and Wire roads. In the pursuit Murray crashed Robert’s car before he was taken into custody. He was returned to St. Augustine where law enforcement were investigating Robert’s disappearance.

On April 18, 2016, Murray led officers from two states to Robert’s body.

Murray has been held in various jails since his arrest. He has most recently been held in the Clayton County (Ga.) Jail. On July 29, 2016, he threatened jailers, saying, “I got bodies under my belt. One more ain’t gonna make no difference,” according to the incident report.

On Aug. 27, 2016, Murray attempted suicide twice by jumping off a second floor balcony with a bed sheet tied around his neck. The first time the knot came undone.

On Jan. 6 while in the infirmary, Murray allegedly stole a pair of scissors and a calculator. In a search of his room an officer found two pairs of medical scissors taped under the bed, a broken light bulb under the toilet, and medical tape and rubber gloves on a shelf, according to another incident report.

Reach Sandy Hodson at sandy.hodson @augustachronicle.com or (706) 823-3226

 

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