Though Augusta’s district attorney has announced plans to seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing Florida priest Rene Robert, a document found in Robert’s personal papers says that is something he did not want to ever happen.
Last month, District Attorney Ashley Wright filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Steven James Murray in the Superior Court of Burke County. The notice cites four aggravating circumstances in the retired Catholic priest’s death, including that it was committed during the commission of kidnapping with bodily injury and that it was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim.”
But a document titled “Declaration of Life” on file at the Diocese of St. Augustine with Robert’s personal papers says none of that should matter.
“I believe that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime and serves only the purpose of revenge,” reads one of four “background” points in the page-and-a-half signed, witnessed and notarized document.
“Therefore, I hereby declare that should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or person found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered,” it says.
Wright said Friday that she had seen the document, which was sent to her office along with a letter from the Most Rev. Felipe J. Estevez, the bishop of St. Augustine. Though she didn’t receive the letter until after she filed the notice of intent, Wright gave no indication that it would have held much sway over her decision.
“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.
Wright said she was prohibited from speaking specifically about pending cases, but she did say she had not consulted Robert’s family about the death penalty, “because these are decisions that lawyers make, based on fact and law and whether the law supports the imposition of a particular sentence or a particular procedural path,”
“My oath actually prohibits me from making decisions based on what the community demands or rejects,” she added.
Wright said a document such as Robert’s declaration is not “governing” to her.
“We are not supposed to take into account the individual circumstances of the victim when we are talking about whether someone’s case is worthy or not worthy of seeking the death penalty,” she said.
Losing a brother
During the nearly week-long search for her brother after he was reported missing to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office on April 12, Deborah Bedard traveled to the area from her New York state home.
She stood by Sheriff David Shoar’s side at a news conference April 18 when he announced that Murray had led investigators to Robert’s body in a remote part of Burke County.
Murray had been arrested days earlier in Aiken after leading authorities on a chase in Robert’s car.
An autopsy determined Robert had died of gunshot wounds.
Investigators say Robert came to know the 28-year-old Murray – who had been released from the Duval County jail April 6 – through the priest’s prison ministry.
Bedard remained in town through her brother’s April 26 funeral mass at San Sebastian Catholic Church.
In his homily, the Rev. Timothy M. Lindenfelser spoke of Robert’s opposition to the death penalty.
“He protested, either on street corners or at the prison, every time there was to be an execution,” he said.
During the time Bedard was in St. Augustine, she was vocal in her support for prosecutors seeking the death penalty even though she knew of her brother’s beliefs.
As late as Thursday, Bedard said she still supported it, though she admitted to feeling conflicted in light of her brother’s convictions.
She said an “advocate” from Wright’s office had been in contact with her, but the nature of those conversations had mostly to do with keeping her updated on the case.
Bedard said her support for the death penalty and her brother’s opposition to it had been acknowledged at least once during those conversations, but she said she was not consulted about what she would want.
Though the diocese says family had been provided copies of Robert’s declaration, Bedard said Thursday that she had not seen it.
After being provided a copy by The Record earlier this week, Bedard speculated Friday that the copy given to the family might have been in a collection of papers handed over to another brother.
After reading the strongly worded document, Bedard said she could no longer support the death penalty in the case.
“I just never knew that my brother was that adamant, that he was that against it,” she said. “I have to do what he wants … I might not be happy with it … I have to abide by his wishes.”
Through tears, Bedard expressed remorse for the things she had said and felt.
“It makes me sad that I was going against his wishes that much, that I didn’t know he was that adamant about having no death penalty against whoever might hurt him,” she said.
Cherish Life Circle
Robert did not write the Declaration of Life. The document is a form with spaces at the end for signatures from the signer, witnesses and the notary.
The signer requests the “Prosecutor or District Attorney having the jurisdiction of the person or persons alleged to have committed my homicide not file or prosecute an action for capital punishment as a result of my homicide.”
He or she also requests that the “Declaration be made admissible as a statement of the victim at the sentencing of the person or person or persons charged and convicted of my homicide.”
“This Declaration is not meant to be, and should not be taken as, a statement that the person or persons who have committed my homicide should go unpunished,” it says.
It contains explicit instructions to the signer’s family, friends and “personal representative.” If the signer is slain, those people are directed to distribute the document to the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge involved. They are also instructed to distribute it to news outlets in the county where the crime occurred.
A letter attached to Robert’s declaration indicates he received it from a group in Brooklyn, N.Y., called the Cherish Life Circle. That letter is signed by Sister Camille D’Arienzo, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy.
Robert signed his declaration May 23, 1995.
An undated, handwritten note on Robert’s letterhead found in his personnel file at the diocese reads, in part, “My statement on Cherish Life hasn’t changed. So, please keep this in my file.”
D’Arienzo said in a phone interview Friday that she never knew Robert and hadn’t even heard his name until she was contacted by the Diocese of St. Augustine and then by The Record.
The Cherish Life Circle, she said, was formed in the early 1990s while D’Arienzo was president of the Sisters of Mercy. She said it was intended to be a forum for people to discuss the death penalty. It was shortly after the group was formed, D’Arienzo said, that she first saw the Declaration of Life and began distributing it.
“We have circulated it over the years … more than 20 years,” she said, but she wasn’t sure how many had signed it. “I would say hundreds for sure, I don’t know if I would go up to a thousand,” she said.
Though the language of the declaration has changed over the years as it has been passed from group to group, the central message remains the same, D’Arienzo said.
“The essence of the Declaration of Life at its very core is that it is a personal testimony to opposition
to the death penalty,” she said.
D’Arienzo didn’t know for sure how Robert got his copy.
“He probably read it somewhere and just sent for it,” she said. “I probably mailed it to him … we’ve sent out so many of them.”
Change of heart
After it was reported that Wright had filed notice to seek the death penalty, Estevez wrote a letter to the editor of The Record that said “imposing a sentence of death as a consequence of killing only perpetuates a cycle of violence.”
“Society remains safe when violent criminals are imprisoned for life,” he wrote.
That’s Bedard’s position now. She wants to be sure Murray stays in prison.
“That’s my fear is for him to possibly get out at some point in his life and do something like this again,” she said.
D’Arienzo said giving people a reason to stop and reflect is part of the value of Robert’s signed statement.
“I think wanting the death penalty is a very natural first response,” she said. “If a member of my family, or a friend of mine, were killed, I would want it. But then I would hope that I would cling to the deeper truth of my life and my faith and my values. I think that is what the Declaration of Life allows people to do.”
Bedard, who said she is Catholic but does not attend church, said the document gave her pause.
“Reading it, it kind of really turns me a little toward maybe not ever thinking of the death penalty again,” she said. “I am so torn now.”