The family of slain St. Augustine priest, the Rev. Rene Robert, says Georgia prosecutors have reached a deal in the accused killer’s case and he will soon be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The move, which has not been confirmed by the Augusta (Georgia) District Attorney’s Office, spares Steven James Murray the death penalty, which prosecutors had initially said they would seek.
“We are very happy because this is what my brother would want,” Robert’s sister Deborah Bedard told The Record on Thursday.
She said a representative from the district attorney’s office had informed her of the deal earlier this week.
Murray was arrested in South Carolina in April 2016 — days after Robert was reported missing by friends and family in St. Augustine.
Authorities, with Murray’s help, later found Robert’s body in a remote part of Burke County, Georgia, just south of Augusta, where Murray is said to have shot the priest.
It is believed that Murray, who was 28 at the time of Robert’s death and had been in and out jail and prison, came to know the priest through his active prison ministry.
After Murray’s arrest, the case drew the attention of many here when officials with the Diocese of St. Augustine found a document called a “Declaration of Life” signed by Robert that stated his opposition to the death penalty and said that he would not want the death penalty sought against anyone who was ever convicted of killing him.
In response, the Most Rev. Felipe J. Estevez, bishop of St. Augustine, published a letter in The Record stating opposition to the district attorney’s decision to seek a death sentence.
A group of priests, along with Estevez, later organized a demonstration on the courthouse steps in Richmond County, Georgia, and delivered a petition with more 7,400 signatures from parishioners asking that Robert’s declaration be honored.
In a statement from the diocese on Thursday, Estevez praised news of the deal.
“I am pleased an agreement has been reached between the state of Georgia and Steven Murray,” he said. “This decision is just and will help Father Robert’s loved ones find closure without the anguish of enduring years of court proceedings.”
District Attorney Natalie Paine, who was not in office when the initial decision to seek the death penalty was made, did not return calls on Thursday afternoon.
But one Georgia TV station said that Paine’s office had not confirmed a deal had been reached.
In a statement, Paine told WRDW News that Bedard, or the diocese, are “not parties to this action and as such, they are not privy to information regarding the case while it is pending.”
Murray has not yet pleaded guilty, that story said, but is due in court on Oct. 18.