Battle between church and state in case of Steven Murray; man accused of murdering Florida priest in Burke County

BURKE COUNTY, Ga. – Steven Murray is behind bars, facing the death penalty, in the murder of Florida Priest, Father Rene Robert.

However, that punishment isn’t the justice Father Robert wanted.

Written in black and white is the signature of Father Robert.

The signature is in a “Declaration of Life,” requesting that if Father Robert should be killed, the person responsible not be put to death.

Those words proved to be prophetic in April of last year when Father Robert was murdered.

Now, it’s a battle between the church and state.

“You never know what is going through the heart and mind of the person doing a violent act. Justice needs to be joined by mercy,” said Bishop Filipe Esteves with the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Bishop Esteves is one of many behind the push to get the district attorney to spare Murray’s life.

“It’s not necessary. We don’t need to be as violent as he was,” said Bishop Esteves.

The bishop says it goes back to the belief that two wrongs don’t make a right.

“Not only that, even if he is put to death, Father Renee will not be brought to life,” said Bishop Esteves.

With the signature of nearly 7,000 parishioners and the signed document, we wanted to know how that would stand in a courtroom.

“It’s not a document that has legal force in the actual prosecution of a case,” said Criminal Attorney Shawn Merzlak with Hawk Law Group.

Merzlak says if Murray is found guilty, the second phase would be presenting evidence to a jury in order to prove the death penalty is the appropriate sentence.

That sentencing is where the, “Declaration of Life” could come into play.

“For the defense to use the, “Declaration of Life,” whether it be through a witness that testifies for them or whether it be the victim’s family, notifying the jury of the defendant’s wishes could be very powerful,” said Merzlak.

We reached out to District Attorney Ashley Wright’s office but were unable to reach Wright.

Bishop Esteves and others will meet at the John Ruffin Courthouse in downtown Augusta on January 31, hoping to persuade Wright to honor Father Robert’s wishes.

NewsChannel 6 will continue to keep you updated on this developing story.

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