Murdered Nuns’ Opposition to Death Penalty Leads to Life in Prison for Killer

Rodney Earl Sanders pled guilty on Thursday to murdering Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill in 2016.

Rodney Earl Sanders
Rodney Earl Sanders (photo: Mississippi Department of Public Safety via CNA)

JACKSON, Miss. — A man convicted of the 2016 slayings of two religious sisters in Mississippi will not receive the death penalty and will instead spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 48, pled guilty on Thursday to murdering Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, as well as the theft of Sister Margaret’s car. The two were found stabbed to death and sexually assaulted at their home in Durant, Mississippi, Aug. 25, 2016. They worked as nurse practitioners at a medical clinic near their home. Their bodies were discovered after they failed to arrive to work.

Sanders did not give a motive for his crimes. At the time of the murders, he was living in a shed across the street from the sisters’ home. He was arrested and charged the day after the crime. Police said he was a person of interest from the beginning of the investigation.

Sister Margaret was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, which is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Sister Paula was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, from Kentucky.

While Sanders was indicted for the sexual assaults, those charges were not included in his guilty plea, according to The Associated Press. Sanders was eligible for the death penalty, but he was sentenced to life in prison after the judge took into account the fact that the murdered sisters were opposed to the death penalty and would not want their killer executed.

In a statement at Sanders’ plea hearing, Sister Susan Gatz, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, said that the two sisters were “two of the most gentle persons you could ever know,” who based their lives on “peace, justice and the love of God.”

Gatz said the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were in favor of the plea agreement, as it took away the possibility of the death penalty for Sanders.

“We have longed for justice with regard to our two beloved sisters,” she said. “And so, we support this plea agreement for life in prison without parole. It is justice that recognizes all life is valuable. It is justice that holds out hope, always, that love can break through the hardest barriers.”

Speaking directly to Sanders, Sister Susan said that her congregation would “never forget what you did to them” and that many people had suffered as a result of his actions.

“But, because we believe in Christ and his Gospel, we forgive you. We have learned over these couple of years that your life has had much turmoil and pain. We want you to know that we will pray that you can find peace.”

The sisters were “examples of goodness, examples of Christlike love,” said Sister Susan, “and nothing and no one can ever take that away.”