FLORIDA – In 1995, Father Rene Robert wrote a document titled Declaration to Life, which argued against the death penalty. Little did he know that 20 years later, his writings would be read in his own murder trial, as those he loved petitioned the court to grant his murderer a second chance at life.
It all started on April 12, 2016, when Father Robert didn’t show up to a funeral service. Those who knew Father Robert found his absence uncharacteristic of the hard working priest. Later that week, his car was spotted on the road, but it wasn’t driven by Father Robert. Instead, the car had been stolen by the man who had murdered Father Robert.
The murderer was Steven Murray, a 28 year old man who had recently been released from jail in Jacksonville, Florida. Father Robert’s attempts to minister to the ex-convict ended tragically when Murray murdered the priest and hid his body in a nearby wooded area. After running from the law, Murray was captured by the police four days after the murder. He later led the police to Father Robert’s body.
The autopsy conducted on Father Robert’s body concluded that the cause of death was homicide due to multiple gunshot wounds.
When interviewed by the media after his arrest, Murray said: “I’m very sorry and, if anybody really loves Father Rene, they will forgive me, because he was a man of God and forgiveness is forgiveness.” Murray also admitted to suffering from mental problems.
Years before his murder, Father Robert had written about his vehement opposition to the death penalty. “I believe that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime and serves on the purpose of revenge,” Father Robert had written.
Yet the most chilling sentence in the declaration was this line written by Father Robert more than twenty years before his body would be found in the woods: “Therefore, I hereby declare that 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 circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered.”
Honoring Father Robert’s wishes, a group of bishops and clergy members delivered a petition signed by more than 7,000 people to the court and asked for the death penalty to be reconsidered.
In a statement, Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine wrote, “Father Rene was a humble and generous servant of our Lord and he shared his many gifts with the poor, the deaf community and with individuals whose lives have found themselves in jail or imprisoned. He put his faith into action through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. To those whom he ministered, Father Rene will be remembered for his kindness and endless love for them.”
In April 2016 during his arrest, Murray confessed to killing Father Robert. Yet during his official court appearances, Murray pleaded not guilty. He was then transported to different jails after he attempted to take his own life and was involved in a vandalism attempt.
Murray has been sentenced yet, his trial is ongoing.