SAVANNAH, Ga. — The national president of the NAACP and more than 1,000 other mourners rallied at the weekend funeral of Troy Davis, vowing to capitalize on the international outcry over the Georgia man's execution to heighten opposition to the death penalty in the United States.
Davis, sent to death row two decades ago on a conviction for the 1989 killing of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, claimed innocence up until the final moments before he received a lethal injection Sept. 21. The 42-year-old condemned man said before the drugs began flowing in his veins that he didn't commit the crime and asked forgiveness for his accusers and executioners.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, national president of the NAACP, brought the crowd at a Savannah church to its feet Saturday with a chant of "I am Troy Davis" — the slogan supporters used to paint Davis as an everyman forced to face the executioner by a faulty justice system.
"Troy's last words that night were he told us to keep fighting until his name is cleared in Georgia," Jealous told those packing the pews of Jonesville Baptist Church. "But most important, keep fighting until the death penalty is abolished and this can never be done to anyone else."
Family, activists and supporters spent years trying to persuade judges and Georgia prison officials that Davis was innocent. But after four years of extraordinary appeals, every court that took on Davis' case ultimately upheld his conviction and death sentence for the slaying.
MacPhail was shot twice while trying to help a homeless man being attacked outside a bus station and his family and prosecutors say they're still confident Davis was guilty.
Regardless, questions raised by Davis and his lawyers garnered support from thousands worldwide, including former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and other prominent figures. The night Davis was executed, protests were held from Georgia to Washington, from Paris to Ghana.
"He transformed a prison sentence into a pulpit," the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said in his eulogy Saturday to the crowd. "He turned death row into a sanctuary."
Warnock told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that he hoped Davis' funeral would 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.
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.
On Saturday, Davis' closed casket was piled with blue and white flowers. Attendees each got a glossy, 22-page program filled with a scrapbook's worth of photos, many of Davis in his white prison garb posing with relatives during weekend visits.
Amnesty International, which worked for years to exonerate Davis, urged its supporters worldwide to remember him by wearing black armbands Saturday. Amnesty's U.S. director, Larry Cox, spoke on a dais behind Davis' casket and urged those who fought to spare his life not to give up until the death penalty is ended in the U.S.
"If you thought you saw us fighting to save Troy Davis, now that we've been inspired by Troy Davis, you ain't seen nothing yet," Cox said.