- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - A judge sentenced a homeless ex-convict to life in prison Friday for fatally shooting a priest nearly three years ago during a burglary at a Phoenix church, drawing approval from the victim’s family and the local Catholic diocese for what they called a “merciful decision” to spare him a possible death penalty.

Gary Michael Moran, 57, also was punished for badly beating another priest whose handgun was used to kill the Rev. Kenneth Walker at the Mother of Mercy Mission. The Rev. Joseph Terra, dressed in a Roman collar, was in court to witness Moran’s sentencing, but he chose not to speak about the injuries he suffered in the beating.

Instead, a statement was read aloud in court on behalf of Walker’s family, Terra and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, saying punishment is often necessary for those who commit crimes but adding that they hope Moran can “experience the power and grace of God’s mercy, which we indeed pray for.”

“We pray for the healing of all victims of violent crimes and for their friends and family who suffer with them, and for their forgiveness and conversion of those who commit such crimes,” the statement read.

The life sentence was the result of a plea agreement reached in late February that spared Moran the death penalty and called for a life sentence. Prosecutors had previously sought the death penalty against Moran.

Moran went to the church to steal what he could find, authorities have said, and Superior Court Judge Peter Reinstein told him during his sentencing that the two priests would have given food and clothing if he had simply asked for help.

“You decided to attack them. Obviously, this is the result,” Reinstein said.

Terra was beaten with the rod after he opened the kitchen door of the church’s rectory to find out why noises were coming from a courtyard.

The priest went to his bedroom to get his .357-caliber handgun, but Moran grabbed it, forced the priest to his knees and demanded money, according to court records.

Terra blacked out, regained consciousness and discovered that Walker had been shot. Walker died later that night.

Moran stole a camera from the priests and fled in Walker’s car, which was found abandoned a few blocks from the church, authorities said.

Terra was in court to witness the sentencing, but said nothing to the judge and did not speak with reporters.

Nicholas Luber, Walker’s brother, also addressed the judge during sentencing, saying he did not know if Moran understood the seriousness of his actions. “Repent and seek forgiveness,” Luber told Moran.

Moran looked down throughout most of the hearing and did not speak.

Angela Walker, one of his attorneys, said he “is very much haunted by the acts he has done.”

“I don’t know if that’s any help to the victims. But he hoped to express that today,” she said.

Moran sought treatment for his mental health issues the day before the attack, Walker said.

Prosecutor Patricia Stevens said Moran had mental health prescription medication with him after the attack, but also had been using methamphetamine.

Moran was arrested four days after the attack after police said his DNA matched forensic evidence collected from the scene.

Moran also bragged about beating and robbing a priest, authorities said. He also gave a woman a bag that contained a camera belonging to one of the clergyman, they said.

Moran in 2001 was sentenced to more than four years in prison after pleading guilty to misconduct involving weapons. He also was convicted in two 1989 burglaries.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud.

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