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Fla. priest called for own killer to be spared death penalty

John Gillespie of San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine, Fla., read a 1995 letter written by his slain colleague, the Rev. Rene Robert, that was notarized and witnessed by an attorney. Robert insisted it be kept in his personnel file.
John Gillespie of San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine, Fla., read a 1995 letter written by his slain colleague, the Rev. Rene Robert, that was notarized and witnessed by an attorney. Robert insisted it be kept in his personnel file.Jason Dearen/Associated Press/File 2016

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The Rev. Rene Robert devoted his life to helping society’s most troubled, working with drug addicts and criminals and even signing a ‘‘Declaration of Life’’ that called for his killer to be spared execution in the event of his murder.

More than two decades after filing that document, his wish will be tested.

Robert’s body — shot multiple times — was found in the Georgia woods last year after a multistate search led to the arrest of Steven Murray, a repeat offender Robert had been trying to help for months.

Police said Murray asked the 71-year-old priest for a ride in Jacksonville, Fla., then kidnapped him and drove him across the state line. Days later, Murray led officers to the priest’s body, police said.

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Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if Murray is convicted of murder, citing the slaying’s aggravated nature. That decision was based on the facts alone, Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright said.

‘‘We don’t look at whether the victim is a priest, a nun, a philanthropist, a drug dealer, or something else,’’ she said.

But Catholic officials from Georgia and Florida plan to protest Tuesday on the courthouse steps in Augusta, citing Robert’s own words opposing capital punishment.

‘‘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, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered,’’ states the document Robert signed in 1995, notarized and witnessed by an attorney, that he insisted be kept in his personnel file.

Prosecutors frequently don’t have access to the wishes of a murder suspect’s victim when making such decisions, let alone a statement so clearly opposed to capital punishment.

Even so, it’s one of many factors, and the choice ultimately is the prosecutor’s, said Georgia State University law professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, who lectures on capital punishment.

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‘‘There’s not a lot of legal precedent for this having any real impact,’’ she said.

On a more subjective level, she said, a prosecutor could decide not to seek the death penalty because of Robert’s statement. But ultimately the district attorney represents the state, not the victim, she added.

Associated Press