JACKSONVILLE – Holding her four-year-old son Elijah, Bobbie Jean Murray lit one of 362 candles on the altar in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception last Friday as an homage to each person serving on Florida’s death row.
Murray, whose brother Stephen Murray was spared the death penalty in the murder and kidnapping of Rev. Rene Robert in April 2016, joined in the Diocese of St. Augustine’s fourth annual Cities of Life celebration to rally support to abolish the death penalty in Florida.
“My sister and I, while protecting our own children and families, tried to get my brother some type of help due to the mental breakdowns that we knew he was going through, right before the death of Father Rene,” she said, addressing about 45 attendees.
When Stephen Murray was captured in South Carolina and brought to near Waynesboro, Georgia where the murder took place, the prosecutor originally wanted to seek the death penalty. However, it was a “Declaration of Life” that Robert had signed 20-plus years prior that played a key role in him receiving life in prison instead. “Should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstance, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered,” states Robert’s Declaration.
“I say all of this to say that if the justice system and or government would put as much effort into helping people as they do trying to kill them, then I believe our world would be a safer and better place,” Bobbie Jean said.
Robert gave money to and had been trying to help Stephen Murray in the weeks leading up to the kidnapping and murder. The priest who served the parish at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine, met Murray in Jacksonville, where he and his siblings grew up.
“Cities for Life is a wonderful program that we knew nothing about when my brother faced the death penalty,” Bobbie Jean said. “I for one, am so grateful for programs and people such as yourselves whom take the time and care to fight for others’ lives.”
In a statement released last week, Bishop Felipe Estévez voiced his commitment to encouraging the new governor and political leadership of Florida to reduce the death sentence to a lesser sentence for all persons who are on death row in Florida or, if innocent, to grant them exoneration, and to submit and support legislation to repeal the death penalty.
“Although families may find retibution in the death penalty, there is no evidence to support that they have found greater peace,” Estévez writes. “And, most importantly, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person.”
In August, Pope Francis announced a revision to the Catholic Church’s Cathecism that clarifies former church teachings and takes stand that the church will work for its abolition worldwide.
Teri Sopp, who serves as a public defender in the Fourth Judicial Circuit covering Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, asked if she can light six candles as she approached the altar. She attended Cities of Light because she believes the death penalty is “immoral because it’s unjust.”
“It’s such an unjust concept … because it impacts the intellectually-disabled, the mentally ill, the addicted, the homeless, the hopeless, the poor, the blacks, the latinos – I mean I see it every day,” Sopp said.
Cities of Light and the Catholic Mobilizing Network are teaming up with Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to fight for restorative justice to be used in place of the death penalty. According to the CMN, restorative justice offers hope and healing while addressing the underlying issues that lead to a life of crime and imprisonment.
“In a perfect world, the death penalty is supposed to be for the rarest of the rare, perhaps the synagogue killer in Pittsburgh or the bar killer in Malibu, Calif., but since the death penalty has been reinstated in Florida, we’ve exactly doubled the number of cases involving the death penalty,” Sopp said.
Nancy O’Byrne, chairman of the board for Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, lived in Orange Park for 26 years before retiring to St. Augustine. She said the death penalty abolishment fight is about becoming educated on the issue and getting all of the facts.
“We are putting innocent people on death row and hopefully it’s going to slow down now that we have to have a unanimous jury, but there’s no guarantee of that because people are out for revenge,” O’Byrne said.
According to the Catholic Mobilizing Network, 90 percent of criminologists say the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime.
There are currently seven men from Clay County who are in state prison after receiving a death sentence. There are five people – four men and one woman – in the Clay County Jail awaiting trial in which the state has previously stated it plans to seek the death penalty when the cases go to a jury trial.