Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Rene Robert Murder

Should a Merciless Killer be Spared the Death Penalty?
by Robert A. Waters

Throughout history, many cultures practiced “an eye for an eye,” meaning that if an individual was murdered, the victim's family exacted revenge. Blood feuds from these original murders sometimes lasted for centuries. Once cultures developed civilized legal systems, the state became the arbiter of justice for victims of violent crimes. The death penalty was developed as kind of a social contract between citizens and the state, whereby an eye for an eye still applied, but was carried out by the state. In the following case, that social contract has been turned on its head, because the victim signed a document asking the state not to execute his killer.

If anybody loves Father Rene, they'll forgive me because he was a man of God, and forgiveness is forgiveness,” Steven Murray, 28, told reporters after leading police to the bullet-riddled body of Catholic Priest Rene Robert. Murray admitted slaying Robert, but blamed it on “mental problems.”

On April 12, Father Rene had been scheduled to perform a funeral service in St. Augustine, Florida, but never showed up. Since this was out of character, church officials contacted the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and reported him missing. During the investigation, a neighbor informed detectives that he last saw Father Rene on Sunday, April 10. Robert's car, a 2012 blue Toyota with a Florida Special Olympics tag, was also missing.

Police soon spotted the vehicle and began pursuing the suspect. After a high-speed chase, deputies lost sight of the car on I-95 near Jacksonville. Murray, identified as the driver, appeared to be heading north, so the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office alerted agencies in Georgia and South Carolina to be on the lookout for the car. Late on the afternoon of April 13, the blue Toyota was discovered in Aiken, South Carolina.

The next day, St. Johns County Sheriff's spokesman Chuck Mulligan announced that Murray had been arrested. Mulligan told reporters that Murray's family had been friends with Father Rene, and “we believe Murray took advantage of [Father Rene's] kindness” as the priest attempted to counsel Murray. After being interviewed, the suspect led detectives to Robert's remains in rural Burke County, Georgia. An autopsy confirmed that the priest had died of several gunshot wounds.

The Daily Beast reported that Father Rene's fellow clergy described him as having been “intensely dedicated. His life's work was with people struggling with drug addictions and criminal histories. He would give money to recovering addicts and even lend them his car.” Like many Catholics, Father Rene adamantly opposed the death penalty. 

On the other hand, Steven Murray had a long history of petty crime. Over a ten-year period, he was arrested for offenses such as larceny, selling stolen property, giving false information to a pawn shop, firearms violations, and violation of probation. He had been out of prison for less than a month when he is alleged to have murdered Father Rene.

Sheriff David Shoar, a friend of the priest, issued the following statement: “I join many others within our community who were touched by Father Rene over the years and extend my condolences to his family and friends. He will be sorely missed. I am confident that all of the investigators will continue their hard work in seeking a successful prosecution of this heinous act.”

It was at this point that detectives located a document that ignited a fierce debate about whether Murray should receive the ultimate punishment, if convicted.

A Declaration of Life, signed by Father Rene, read: “Should I die as a result of 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 the crime or how much I have suffered.”

In the coming trial, will the priest's wishes be upheld? While the prosecutor has already stated her intention of seeking capital punishment, Father Rene's family has publicly stated that they oppose execution.

When Father Rene signed the Declaration of Life form years ago, he likely never had an inkling that he would be murdered. But he let his wishes be known, and never changed his mind. Despite the brutality of the crime and the outrage of citizens in St. Augustine, it is probable that Steven Murray will never die from the prick of a needle.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Clark Elmore
Suspending Death
by Robert A. Waters

During my term, we will not be executing people.” Washington Democratic governor Jay Inslee.

On April 17, 1995, middle school student Kristy Lynn Ohnstad disappeared. The fourteen-year-old resided with her mother, Sue Ohnstad, and Sue's live-in boyfriend, Clark Elmore (AKA James Dickey) in Bellingham, Washington. At the time, Elmore had lived with Sue for ten years, and they'd had a child, Kayla, together.

Kristy's mother reported her missing when she didn't return home from school. The day after she vanished, a passer-by found Kristy's backpack in a ditch near Samish Way.

When questioned by investigators, Elmore denied knowing what happened to his stepdaughter. He stated that he dropped her off in front of a convenience store near her school on the morning she disappeared. Elmore stated that several “kids” were there waiting for school to start. (When interviewed, the students denied seeing Kristy that morning.) Elmore told investigators that he and his common-law wife had been having problems with the “rebellious” teen and that he thought she had been seeing boys behind their backs.

Detectives observed that Elmore was extremely “pale and shaky” during much of the interview, but after searching his van, they found no incriminating evidence and let him go.

Late on the evening of April 21, searchers located Kristy's body south of Lake Samish. Court documents state that “at 7:30 a.m., on Saturday, April 22, 1995, investigators from the Sheriff's Office and the Bellingham Police Department met to process the crime scene. They found Kristy's body laying face down on the ground beneath a plastic tarp. Her shirt was pulled over one shoulder and she had a plastic bag over her head. Other than the shirt and socks, she was naked. When investigators removed the bag, they found a black belt around her neck and a metal spike protruding from her ear. Animals had removed portions of her ears. Two red flecks of paint were recovered from the body. The flecks were eventually traced back to a red toolbox Elmore kept in his van.”

When Elmore was informed that Kristy's remains had been discovered, he fled to Oregon.

Two days later, Elmore returned to Bellingham and confessed to the rape and murder of Kristy Lynn Ohnstad.

Washington Supreme Court briefs described Elmore's confession: “Elmore explained that on Monday morning, April 17, he stopped Kayla off at daycare and returned home about 8:20 a.m. Kristy was complaining about going to school and had missed her bus. When Elmore told Kristy she was 'grounded forever,' she commented about Elmore molesting her. When detectives pursued the subject, Elmore acknowledged molesting Kristy when she was 5 years old. He said that after the incident, whenever he tried to discipline Kristy, she threatened to turn him in for molestation....

When Kristy mentioned the subject on this day, Elmore told her to 'shut up.' They got in the van and drove toward Kristy's school. Along the way, Elmore snapped. Instead of dropping Kristy off at school, he continued driving. Some 20 minutes later, he reached the far end of Lake Samish, where he pulled the van onto a secluded dirt road and parked. Elmore unbuckled Kristy's seat belt and warned her it was time she learned to do as he told her 'or she'd get seriously hurt.' Elmore grabbed Kristy by the shirt and pulled her to the back of the van. He told her to take off her clothes or she was going to get hurt. She refused and Elmore forcibly removed them. Kristy cried and pleaded but Elmore raped her...

After raping Kristy, Elmore placed his hands around her neck and manually choked her.  He then wrapped Kristy's belt around her neck and cinched it tightly. Afterward, he took a nine-inch metal, needle-like tool and forced it into Kristy's left ear approximately five-and-a-half inches, piercing Kristy's brain. Elmore thought Kristy was still making noises so he covered her head with a plastic bag and repeatedly bludgeoned her skull with with a sledgehammer until he was sure she was dead. Elmore then dragged Kristy's nude body into the woods, covered her with a plastic drop cloth, got back into his van and drove away.”

Elmore later pleaded guilty to aggravated first degree murder and rape. He was sentenced to death.

After 30 years, his appeals finally ran out.

But instead of an execution, Elmore received “leniency” from the governor.  For at least four more years, he can breathe safely.

Whatcom County prosecutor Dave McEachern met with Inslee in an attempt to get him to change his mind. The Washington Spokesman-Review reported that McEachern “implored the governor to focus on how the girl suffered.”

In the end, justice doesn't matter when philosophical ideology overrules the legal system.