Catholic bishops to DA: Don’t seek death in priest’s killing

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory in 2015 file image. BOB ANDRES  / BANDRES@AJC.COM
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Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory in 2015 file image. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Three Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, are calling on a district attorney to reverse her decision to seek the death penalty against a man accused of kidnapping and then killing a priest.

The bishops will hold a press conference Tuesday outside the courthouse in Augusta, asking the state not to seek death against Steven James Murray. Last year, District Attorney Ashley Wright of the Augusta Judicial Circuit announced she was seeking the death penalty against Murray, who is accused of kidnapping St. Augustine, Fla., priest Rene Robert, forcing him into the trunk of his car and then driving Robert to Burke County where he shot and killed him.

After the death notice was filed, Gregory and Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine wrote to Wright, telling her that Robert had left a signed and notarized four-page “Declaration of Life.”

In that document, Robert, who had previously protested against executions, wrote that in the event he died a violent death, he did not want his killer to get the death penalty. That would be the case no matter how heinous the crime, no matter how much he suffered at the hands of his killer, Robert wrote.

Neither Gregory nor Estevez received a reply from Wright, a press release from the communications office for the Archdiocese of Atlanta said.

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Ashley Wright, district attorney of the Augusta Judicial Circuit. (Photo courtesy of augustaga.gov)

On Monday, Wright said in an email that she knew about the scheduled press conference by the bishops and has a general awareness of the church’s position on capital punishment.

“While I understand they consider him their family and have his best wishes at heart, I am only in a position to negotiate a criminal case with the attorneys who represent the defendant,” she wrote. “To the extent that they wish to persuade me to take a particular course, that’s outside the boundaries of my participation.”

Wright said she’d previously received a phone call from an attorney at the request of the Florida diocese. “I spoke with him and believed that he and I were clear about my responsibilities,” she said.

Wright also noted that her involvement in the case is ending. On Monday afternoon, she is being sworn in to replace Superior Court Judge David Roper, who is retiring. Chief Assistant District Attorney Hank Syms will be acting DA after Wright’s swearing in, according to The Augusta Chronicle.

It will be up to “the attorneys for both sides, the defendant and the family” who will determine the ultimate outcome of Murray’s case, Wright wrote. “While I desire the public’s trust in the work that we do, I have to act within my professional parameters and make decisions in this case the same way that I would in every other: using the facts and the law to gauge the likelihood of proof of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt and the most appropriate method of balancing the punishment options.”

On Tuesday, Gregory will be joined by Estevez of St. Augustine and Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah.

In December, Estevez received signatures from almost 7,000 Catholics in his diocese, asking that Robert’s stated request that his killer not receive the death penalty be honored by Georgia’s courts, the archdiocese’s communications office said.


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