SAVANNAH, Ga. - Friends and supporters of Troy Davis, the convicted murderer who was executed in Georgia last week despite emotional pleas for his life, remembered him Friday night as a gentle man who faced his execution with grace and dignity.
More than 250 people, including NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, jammed the New Life Apostolic Temple in Davis' hometown of Savannah for a church memorial that served as a prelude to a much larger service planned for Davis' funeral Saturday. Friends, pastors, anti-death penalty activists and Davis' lawyer all took turns at a podium behind his closed casket, decorated with a spray of white and purple flowers.
The 42-year-old Davis was executed by lethal injection last week for the 1989 slaying of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In his last words, Davis insisted he was innocent and asked forgiveness for his accusers and executioners.
Longtime friend Earl Redman, who said he'd known Davis since age 8, told the crowd Friday that during prison visits Davis would often say that he expected to die in the death chamber.
"He looked me in the eye and he told me, `Don't let me die in vain. Don't let my name die in vain,"' Redman said as a church usher tore paper towels off a roll for teary attendees to dry their eyes.
The Rev. Randy Loney, a Macon pastor who often visited Davis in prison, said he was always struck by Davis' gentle nature despite the death sentence looming over him. Referring to the catchphrase adopted by his supporters -- "I am Troy Davis" -- Loney said he came to realize that "in a lot of ways, we are not Troy Davis."
"We did not wake up every morning and go to sleep every evening with the specter of the executioner in our eyes," he said.
Jason Ewart, a Washington attorney who spent seven years handling Davis' appeals, fought back tears as he recalled sitting in the second row of witnesses at the execution and watching the life drain from Davis' eyes.
Ewart recalled many long phone conversations with Davis, never shorter than an hour, in which the men spent twice as much time talking about their families as they did legal strategy. Ewart said his own grandmother had just died, and he pictured her and Davis together at "heaven orientation."
"She would say, `Jesus died on the cross not because he was guilty, but because we all were,"' Ewart said.
Davis' family has opted to open the funeral Saturday to his supporters and the general public, holding the service at a church that organizers say can seat 2,000 people. The pastor who will deliver the eulogy said he hopes Davis' funeral will serve as wake-up call on the death penalty much like the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till shocked Americans to the brutal realities of Jim Crow.
"Like Emmett Till's mother insisted on an open casket funeral in a way that the world could see the injustice of Jim Crow, it's much to the Davis family's credit that they have been willing in the midst of their personal pain to see that we are talking about a larger, national moral crisis," the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Till was killed and his body was mutilated by white men after the boy was seen speaking to a white woman at a grocery store in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955. His death was an early flashpoint that helped spark the civil rights movement.
Warnock, head pastor at the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, said "it's not a perfect analogy" to compare Davis' case to the Till lynching. Davis was convicted in 1991 of killing MacPhail, who was shot twice while rushing to stop an attack on a homeless man.
After four years of appeals since Davis' first scheduled execution was halted in 2007, every court that looked at Davis' case ultimately upheld his death sentence. MacPhail's family and prosecutors insist Davis was the killer. But Warnock said he's among those who believe Davis was innocent.