US & Canada

Slain Florida priest begs mercy from beyond grave for accused

Reverend Rene Robert Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Father Rene Robert wrote a plea in 1995 on behalf of whoever killed him

A Florida priest murdered last year has appealed from beyond the grave for his alleged killer to be shown mercy.

Reverend Rene Robert enshrined his opposition to the death penalty in a letter he wrote 22 years ago, in which he apparently foresaw his own killing.

The Catholic priest's note requested that whoever took his life be spared execution "no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered".

Bishops have petitioned the court to drop capital punishment in the case.

The body of 71-year-old Fr Robert, of St Augustine, Florida, was found riddled with bullets in woods in Georgia in April 2016.

Image copyright AIKEN COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE
Image caption Steven Murray is facing several charges, including murder

Authorities say he was killed days earlier by a man, Steven Murray, whom he had been trying to help for months.

In 1995, the priest signed a "Declaration of Life" document, which was witnessed and notarised by a lawyer.

"I request that the person found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances," wrote Fr Robert.

The note had remained in his personnel file at his own insistence, said Catholic bishops, who are protesting against the prosecutor's decision to seek capital punishment for his killer.

Fr Robert devoted his life to helping society's most troubled people, including convicts and the mentally afflicted, say friends.

Image copyright ST JOHNS COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE
Image caption Father Robert "was well aware for the potential violence that might involve his ministry", said an archbishop

"He was well aware for the potential violence that might involve his ministry, but he cared for those people nonetheless," said Archbishop Wilton Gregory.

The archbishop was among about a dozen clergymen who rallied on Tuesday outside the court in Augusta, Georgia.

They delivered a petition by more than 7,400 people from Fr Robert's diocese asking that his wishes be honoured.

"We want to be the voice that he no longer has to make that 'Declaration of Life' a part of the understanding of this particular case," said Bishop Gregory Hartmayer outside court.

Bishop Felipe Estevez, of the St Augustine diocese, said the alleged killer clearly deserved punishment.

But, he added, "imposing a sentence of death as a consequence of killing only perpetrates the cycle of violence in our community".

Image copyright St John's County Sheriff
Image caption The suspect was caught driving the priest's Toyota Corolla

The prosecutor, Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright, has cited four aggravating factors in her decision to seek the death penalty if the accused is convicted.

She said these were that the slaying was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman.

Mr Murray, a repeat offender, had asked the priest for a lift in Jacksonville, Florida, before abducting and murdering him, authorities said.

The suspect was apprehended while driving the priest's blue Toyota Corolla in South Carolina a day after Fr Robert was reported missing.

Mr Murray led police to the priest's body.

During a court appearance shortly after his arrest, he appealed for forgiveness.

"If anybody loves Father Rene, they'll forgive me because he was a man of God, and forgiveness is forgiveness," the suspect said, according to Georgia's WALB News.

"I have mental problems and I lost control of myself. I apologise."