Voice From the Past

Florida Priest Wanted His Future Killer’s Life Spared

Rene Robert could not have known back in 1995 that one day he would be murdered. Now his fellow clergy hope his wishes from two decades ago will keep his alleged murderer off death row.

Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles/Aiken County Sheriff's Office

More than 20 years before his murder, Father Rene Robert pleaded to spare his future killer’s life.

Robert, a Catholic priest in St. Johns County, Florida, was staunchly opposed to the death penalty. When Florida was scheduled to execute an inmate, Robert would gather congregants to pray for the prisoner, the Augusta Chronicle reported in July, and he prayed for Florida to abolish the death penalty.

In 1995, he signed a notarized “Declaration of Life,” asking that, in the event of his murder, the killer would be allowed to live. Twenty-one years later, at age 71, Robert was murdered, allegedly by Steven Murray, a repeat offender Robert had hoped to rehabilitate. Now Murray could face the death penalty if convicted, and the sentence is the opposite of what Robert would have wanted, his fellow clergy say.

Robert’s Declaration of Life has no legal significance in the court. But Robert’s family, his fellow priests, and his alleged killer hope the dead priest’s compassion will spare Murray.

Church officials reported Robert missing on April 12, 2016, when the priest did not show up for a funeral service. The absence was unusual for Robert, whom fellow clergy described as intensely dedicated. His life’s work was with people struggling with drug addiction and criminal histories. He would give money to recovering addicts and even lend them his car, fellow clergy told the Associated Press. Days after Robert went missing, police allegedly spotted Murray driving that same car. After a car chase and Murray’s arrest, police say Murray led them to a Georgia property where they found the elderly priest’s remains.

Murray pleaded not guilty to Robert’s murder in a September court appearance but asked for forgiveness during an earlier hearing in April.

“I’m very sorry and if anybody really loves Father Rene, they’ll forgive me because he was a man of God and forgiveness is forgiveness,” Murray said during the April appearance. “I have mental problems, and I lost control of myself, and I apologize.”

While a trial date has not been set, Murray could face the death penalty if convicted, his attorney told The Daily Beast. According to Robert’s 1995 Declaration of Life, which he kept in a personal file at the time of his death, the priest would oppose capital punishment for his alleged killer.

“Should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstance, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered,” reads Robert’s 1995 Declaration of Life.

This kind of document, which Robert signed in the presence of a notarized witness, is not unheard of in the church. Much of the language in Robert’s letter can be found in similar Declaration of Life templates, which request that, in the event of the declarant’s death, their representatives will deliver copies of the declaration to the court and to their accused killer’s attorney. But the document’s use in a murder case is rare.

Ryan Swingle, one of Murray’s two defense attorneys, has specialized in capital punishment cases for four years. In that time, he’s seen victims’ families oppose the death penalty for killers. But Robert’s Declaration of Life is a first in Swingle’s experience.

“It’s really hard to say, ultimately, how much weight the Declaration of Life will have in the case,” Swingle told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s a really important indication of what Father Robert would have wanted to see happen. I think all parties involved should give it a lot of consideration.”

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Robert’s fellow clergy in Florida’s Diocese of St. Augustine appear to have taken his wishes to heart. A St. Augustine bishop’s petition has amassed more than 7,000 signatures by people who oppose the death penalty for Murray, should he be convicted. On Jan. 31, the Florida diocese plans on delivering the petition to the Georgia court where Murray will be tried.

“It will put some public pressure on the DA in Georgia to reconsider her stance,” Kathleen Bagg, a spokeswoman for the diocese, told Florida’s WUFT radio station. “We’re asking her to take into consideration the wishes of the victim and the victim’s family.”

In the aftermath of Robert’s death, his family has grappled with the wishes expressed in his Declaration of Life. Deborah Bedard, Robert’s sister, cried when she first received a copy of the document, she told the Augusta Chronicle. She had previously wanted the death penalty for her brother’s killer. The Declaration of Life meant accepting Robert’s wishes.

“He doesn’t know how much we loved our brother, how much so many people loved my brother, and I know my brother would be proud of me for saying this: I don’t want him to get the death penalty now,” Bedard told the Chronicle of Murray. “We weren’t brought up to hate people and I don’t hate Steven; I’m very, very angry, but that is subsiding.”

While the Declaration of Life is not legally binding, Swingle said he hopes Robert’s 1995 call for mercy will spare Murray, should he be convicted.

“I have the utmost respect for Father Robert’s work, his efforts throughout his life to care for all sorts of needy and broken people,” Swingle said. “In Georgia, there’s a strong emphasis on making sure victims’ voices are heard. I hope Father Robert’s wishes are given great consideration.”