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Thousands attend funeral of executed U.S. convict

Oct 1, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
Georgia Department of Corrections handout photo of Troy Davis. REUTERS/Georgia Department of Corrections/Handout

By Matthew Bigg

SAVANNAH, Georgia (Reuters) - Thousands of people packed a church in Georgia on Saturday for the funeral of Troy Davis, who was executed for the murder of a police officer in a case that drew world attention because of claims by his advocates that he was innocent.

The rousing service at Jonesville Baptist Church in Savannah reflected a determination by his family, civil rights leaders, supporters and activists to turn his execution last week into a renewed campaign against the death penalty.

"There are some who think that now that Troy has gone ... that our movement is gone, that our voices have been silenced and that our fire has gone out," said Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

"But we have news for them today. We are just getting started," Warnock said in an impassioned eulogy that left some in the congregation in tears and others standing to applaud.

The service lasted more than three hours and mixed gospel songs, prayers and Bible readings. Many in the largely black congregation wore "I am Troy Davis" T-shirts.

Davis, 42, was put to death by lethal injection on September 21 at a prison in central Georgia for the murder in Savannah in 1989 of police officer Mark MacPhail, who was shot as he rushed to the aid of a homeless man who was being beaten.

The execution was delayed by around four hours as the Supreme Court decided whether to issue a stay, and Davis went to his death saying he was innocent.

No physical evidence tied Davis to the crime. Since his conviction, seven of nine witnesses changed or recanted their testimony. Some said they were coerced by police to testify and some named another man they said killed MacPhail.

The case provoked protests by death penalty opponents, France and the Council of Europe called for a stay of execution and nearly 1 million people signed an online petition.

Amnesty International, which campaigns against the death penalty, said the case received more attention than any in the United States in years.

"IT IS NOT OVER"

Several speakers at the church portrayed Davis as a symbol of what they called deep flaws in the justice system.

Davis was black and there are a disproportionate number of black men in prison in Georgia and on death row, according to human rights lawyers.

"The state of Georgia believes it's over. ... We are here to say today that it is not over. Now that we have been inspired by Troy Davis, you ain't seen nothing yet," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The death penalty receives broad public and political support in the United States, but controversy at home and abroad about the Davis case rekindled intense debate about its use.

Speakers praised Davis as being an inspiration to his family and friends and to other prison inmates while he was on death row. He often helped his nephew to do homework, tutoring him over the telephone from prison, they said.

Some speakers also sought to cast Davis' death in the context of a broader civil rights tradition in which an unjust death that appears to be a setback is used to redouble commitment to the movement.

"Troy ... told us to keep on fighting until his name is finally cleared and Georgia admits what Georgia has done," Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a speech.

"Troy's last words were to keep on fighting until the death penalty is abolished and this (the execution) can never be done to anyone else," Jealous said.

At the end of the service, loudspeakers relayed an audio message from Davis recorded before his death in which he thanked his supporters and asked them to continue a campaign against the death penalty.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Xavier Briand)

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