ATLANTIC BEACH — On Sunday afternoon, a quiet room inside a small office at the end of a strip mall shone bright with light cast off a golden Buddha statue. Below it, the face of a dead man stared from a photograph.
The mourners were husband-and-wife lawyers, Bill Sheppard and Betsy White. The deceased was their client, Gary Alvord, who 40 years ago choked the life out of three women in Tampa.
Just before 2 p.m., Sheppard hobbled into the Maitreya Kadampa Buddhist Center near Jacksonville, leaning on a black cane, and took a seat in the first of 12 chairs. His wife, clad in a blue flowered dress, her long gray hair held back with a green clip, sat next to him. They stared at the jaundiced, distrustful gaze of the murderer whose life they dedicated their careers to save.
"We felt a need to give him peace," White said. "He paid dearly for his crimes, as he should have. But fundamentally, he was still a human being."
A dozen others, Buddhist students and center volunteers, took other seats. A few others sat on floor pillows.
No one in the dead man's family came. Nor did friends. In the end, his attorneys were all he had.
Although Alvord was a nonreligious Catholic, the lawyers chose to have a Buddhist service because they liked the idea of him transcending to a place of peace free of negative karma.
But the ceremony was not about honoring a murderer who escaped capital punishment, the attorneys insisted. It was about paying respects to his victims and marking the end of a very long and very sad story.
"He was in our life for 35 years," White said. "There was not a day that went by that we did not think of Gary. And there was not a day that went by that we did not think of Gary's victims."
• • •
When he died in May at age 66 of brain cancer, Gary Alvord held the distinction of being the longest-serving death row inmate in America. He was sentenced to die for the 1973 murders of Ann Herrmann, 36; her daughter, Lynn Herrmann, 18; and Ann's mother, Georgia Tully, 53.
His heinous acts, and the four decades he spent in a single-man, non-air conditioned cell, are well-known. So was his mental condition, the schizophrenia that plagued him since childhood, a mental illness that some believed was the force behind his violence.
Much less talked about are the two lawyers who made it their life's work to block his execution.
Sheppard and White, by their own account, were young and naive when they volunteered to take on Alvord's appeals. To put a man to death, they believed, was to continue the cycle of violence. They wanted to stop that. And, repeatedly, they did.
"Every day of his life since he was 25 years old, someone wanted to kill him," White said. "We felt that killing Gary was in no way going to bring back the three women he killed."
On Sunday, the mood was not one of victory. Nor was it of complete sorrow. For those gathered, it was one of compassion and peace, for Alvord and for the women he killed.
Still, Sheppard and White held no illusion that the man they chose to represent was anything but a horrible person.
• • •
They were far from alone.
Jim Tully was 10 years old when his mother, Georgia; his sister Ann; and niece Lynn were killed. No one ever told him what happened. He doesn't remember their funerals. The day his mother was buried, his father took him to the movies to see Paper Moon.
It wasn't until years later, when he happened to come across a True Detective magazine, that he read the name Gary Alvord. Ever since, as Alvord lived, Tully wished him to die.
"We have a death penalty in this country for a reason," he said last week by phone from his home in Atlanta. "They should have turned the juice on him within a year."
He still thinks of his mother every time he sees his older brother and his two older sisters. He hears her in their voices. He sees her in their faces.
"It's hard because that's the cloud we live under," he said. "That is what defines our lives. … It'll never be over until we're standing together again."
He didn't know what to make of plans for Alvord's memorial. A Christian, he believes Alvord has already answered to God.
• • •
The crowd sauntered up a brick path and over wood planks to where frothy waters crashed over sun-drenched sand. Against a heavy breeze, Sheppard and White's son, James, opened a black box marked "Archer Funeral Home, Date of Cremation: May 28, 2013."
He pulled out a plastic bag of gray ashes and waded into the surging tide. Alvord's remains fell into the surf and vanished. At the water's edge, the Buddhists tossed daisies. They turned away, formed a circle and prayed.
Behind them, the waves kept churning.