Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

In Saint Augustine, a dead priest pleads for the life of his killer

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The death penalty used to be a big story in Florida. Print and broadcast executives gave sustained and thoughtful consideration to coverage decisions. The moral, religious, public safety, and financial dimensions of this irrevocable punishment are vast, and cry out for quality journalism. For years after Gov. Bob Graham signed John Spenkelink‘s death warrant, the beat was a magnet for the most ambitious reporters, editors, and editorial writers in the golden age of journalism.

The story is as vast as it ever was, but the staffing is down to next-to-nothing, which is why you probably missed the stranger-than-fiction and sad beyond belief story of The Rev. Rene Robert.

For 38 years, Father Robert served the Catholic Diocese of Saint Augustine beginning in 1980 as a teacher at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. He was respected by people of all faiths, or little faith, like the convicted criminals he worked with in his prison ministry.

One of them, Steven James Murray, is accused of Father Robert’s murder and faces the death penalty. Murray admitted the killing in a newspaper interview, and led the police to the body of the slain priest.

Tomorrow, Father Robert will plead from the grave for Murray’s life when local death penalty opponents gather at the Shrine at Mission

Nombre de Dios to voice their belief that it is wrong for the state to take the life of a convicted criminal, no matter how vile the crime, and no matter how innocent the victim.

Much on their minds is the Declaration of Life signed by Father Robert in 1995. The document works like a living will or organ donor card. It expresses an individual’s values and desires that can be acted upon only in a circumstance where the declarant is unable to lobby on his own behalf. There are tho09usands of people like Father Robert who have signed the Declaration, swearing before a notary that they oppose capital punishment, even if the punishment is directed at someone who inflicted suffering, followed by death, upon them.

Even kings can’t rule from the grave, and the Declaration of Life carries no legal weight. But after a lifetime of service to north Florida, Father Robert’s wishes carry great moral weight, and have earned him tomorrow’s hearing in the court of public opinion.

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