(CNN) — It was inevitable that the fiery politics of the death penalty would punctuate Saturday’s remembrance of Troy Anthony Davis.
His 20 years of claims of innocence on Georgia’s death row earned him millions of supporters who believe the state wrongfully executed him on the night of September 21.
Saturday, Davis’ family and closest friends gathered inside the Jonesville Baptist Church to celebrate his life.
A mass of flowers covered Davis’ closed casket. Two photos flanked it — one a color portrait of a young boy who grew up on the streets of Savannah’s Cloverdale neighborhood and the other a black and white photo of a young man in a suit attending his murder trial.
Those in attendance repeatedly chanted: “I am Troy Davis,” the slogan adopted in the campaign to spare his life and one that went viral on social media networks.
“Look at those last two lines of your program today,” said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. “I am Troy Davis. And I am free.”
Jealous and other friends and advocates for Davis, including his lawyer, Jason Ewart, voiced Davis’ last words before he was put to death by lethal injection. That he was sorry for the family of police Officer Mark MacPhail, but that he was innocent.
“We’re going to keep on fighting until his name is finally cleared and Georgia admits what it has done,” Jealous said. “We’re going to keep on fighting until the death penalty is abolished and this can never be done to anyone else.”
MacPhail was shot in the early morning hours of August 19, 1989, in the parking lot of a Burger King just a few miles north of the church where Davis was memorialized. Davis was tried and convicted for MacPhail’s murder and sent to death row in 1991.
But he and his family had always maintained that the jury convicted the wrong man.
The MacPhails said they lived in agony as legal proceedings dragged on year after year.
The case became controversial after several of the witnesses who testified against him at trial later said they were coerced to speak against Davis.
It was battled in many courtrooms before his execution. But in the end, Davis lost all his appeals.
“We are gathered here in a place of the most unjust execution of mankind,” Ewart said. “Jesus was killed on the cross, not because he was guilty, but because we are.
“Many have spoken of Troy as a symbol,” Ewart said. “He was the soul of something profound.”
Ewart, a young antitrust lawyer signed onto defending Davis shortly after graduating from Emory University’s law school in Atlanta.
“I met him seven years ago. When I met him I was young. I was green,” he said. “From the very first conversation I had with Troy I knew he could be my older brother, my friend, and eventually, he became just that.”
Raphael Warnock, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, invoked the 1994 book the made Savannah famous.
“It’s midnight in the garden of good and evil,” he said. “But I am so glad God does his best work at midnight. When the adversary has our backs against the wall, that’s when God does his best work.
“Strange things happen in Savannah, Georgia,” he said. “This city of cobblestone streets and verdant town squares … you have become the ground zero for the struggle to abolish the death penalty once and for all. Savannah, Georgia, the world is watching you.”
Davis’ mother, Virginia, died in April. She was not around to see the execution of her son, an act that would have surely been wretchedly painful to bear. Davis’ sisters, Martina Correia and Kimberly Davis, attended the funeral Saturday, as did Correia’s son De’Jaun Davis-Correia.
Davis-Correia, born prematurely, said his uncle Troy was afraid to hold him when he was first born. He weighed only 3 pounds, 8 ounces.
“He thought he would break me,” Davis-Correia said.
But he grew into a strong young man, he said, through his uncle’s guidance. He spoke of how Davis, from death row, used to help his nephew with homework, even put his tests and exams on his calendar. People tell him now that he’s a little version of his uncle.
And that makes Davis-Correia, the nephew of an executed man, very proud. For all his life, his uncle lived 300 miles away, behind brick walls. But, he said, “It was always like he was home with us.”
The funeral was open to the public, but Davis was to be buried Saturday with only his family at his graveside.
And then, just before people began streaming out of the church well into Saturday afternoon, a message recorded by Davis thanked his supporters all over the world for their efforts on his behalf.
“Everything we do today will clear the way for a better tomorrow,” Davis said. “We can correct all the wrongs if we band together. Don’t give up the fight.”
The voice of the dead had filled the sanctuary.