WAYNESBORO, GA. — A shackled Steven James Murray was ushered into an old historic courtroom on Liberty Street on Wednesday for what was his last glimpse of a free society — a society that in many ways failed the 30-year-old.
Sitting in the Georgia courtroom were Bobbie Jean and Crystal Murray, sisters he hasn’t laid eyes on for 1 1/2 years since he was arrested for killing Father Rene Wayne Robert, a 71-year-old priest from St. Augustine. Also sitting there was an aunt and an old family friend, women who tried to pull the Murray children away from the horrors of their childhoods in Aiken, S.C., where they grew up.
Steven Murray patted his chest and mouthed the words “I love you” as he looked at them and walked past a table that bore a large cardboard box that said these words: Steven Murray Death Row
But Murray will be spared from death row. During an emotional 45-minute proceeding Wednesday at the Burke County Courthouse in Waynesboro, Murray agreed to waive his right to a trial and any sort of appeal when he pleaded guilty to murder and an assortment of charges related to Robert’s death.
Robert believed in helping those like Murray — people on the fringe of society who bounced in and out of existence after terms of incarceration. Robert also believed strongly in the abolition of the death penalty. So much so that in 1995, he signed what is called a Declaration of Life that says should he ever die by homicide, his killer should not be put to death.
Their lives intersected at a time in Murray’s life when most had given up on him and he was spiraling out of control. In the midst of helping him on April 10, 2016, Murray told Robert to get in the the trunk of his car. After driving from the Jacksonville area for long periods in South Carolina and Georgia to see family, Murray let Robert out of the car and followed him into the Georgia woods.
He fired his gun striking Robert in the left side. As Robert lay on the ground, Murray fired the gun into his head. He then drove back to Jacksonville and a day later escaped police in a high-speed chase. Murray was eventually pulled from the woods in South Carolina.
Murray detailed the crime in extensive and exclusive interviews with the Florida Times-Union last year. He said he snapped when the priest told him he’d go back to prison. In court Wednesday the district attorney outlined the last days of Robert’s life and the manhunt for Murray by repeating much of what Murray said in tape-recorded interviews with the paper.
District Attorney Natalie Paine withdrew her predecessor’s plans to seek the death penalty and allowed Murray to take a plea deal of a life sentence in prison.
“Steven Murray absolutely deserved the death penalty for what he did,” Paine said. “He’s a very dangerous and violent man.”
Judge James Blanchard admonished Murray by saying Robert was a man of honorable characteristics, faith and goodness — traits Murray doesn’t bare.
“Father Rene Robert,” the judge said, “is speaking from the grave and asking that you be given another chance.” The judge then encouraged Murray to find religion and hope for salvation as he hinted at hell because mercy, he suggested, wasn’t a guarantee.
Murray, 30, was arrested at the age of 11 so he could escape his abusive father. He has spent about half his life behind bars. Now he’ll never get get out.
Murray told the Times-Union the man he planned to kill all along was his father, Bobby James Murray, whom he blames for ruining his life after forcing him to molest his sisters, shoot drugs into his arms and commit crimes. Much of the nightmares of Murray’s childhood was laid out in court Wednesday.
His attorney Adam Levin explained to the judge that the people who should have protected Murray failed him from an early age on. He explained how at the age of 6, he had the language skills of a 2-year-old and an IQ of 68, which is considered intellectually disabled. Levin said not long before Murray killed Robert, Murray sought help in an emergency room to help him process the demons of his life.
Murray told the judge he knew Robert’s family must be seeking an answer as to why he did what he did.
“All I can say is I didn’t mean to do it,” he said.
Murray’s sisters cried on and off throughout the proceeding. They too had been tormented and tortured by their father, the newspaper exposed last year after reviewing thousands of pages of social service documents and police reports. The sisters had been instrumental back in Jacksonville when they called the authorities to say they thought the priest may be in danger. Little did they know how gravely in danger the 71-year-old was.
Robert’s nephew Shaun McAndrews said he understood that Murray was extremely violent and a product of his childhood, but that still doesn’t erase what he did to his uncle.
“He will have to think about it for the rest of his life,” McAndrews said in court. “And I hope he does every single day. I hope he loses sleep over it every single night.”
Following the proceeding, Murray was led out of the old courthouse by five sheriff’s deputies. As he was put in the cruiser he lifted one of his handcuffed hands and waved goodbye.
Eileen Kelley: (904) 359-4104