LAUREL, Md. – Hundreds of mourners filled a funeral Mass on Saturday evening for a recent law school graduate from Maryland who was found slain and dismembered in the small Georgia city where she studied law.
Lauren Giddings, a 27-year-old graduate of Mercer University's law school in Macon, Ga., was "a joy from the moment she was born," the victim's mother Karen Giddings told television outlet Fox 5 outside a Catholic church in Laurel, her hometown. The service was followed by a candlelight vigil and burial.
Giddings was last seen after a night out with friends June 25 in Georgia. Five days later, police there discovered her partial remains wrapped in plastic in a garbage bin beside her apartment building in Macon.
Former Mercer classmate Stephen Mark McDaniel has been charged with murder in connection with the death.
An attorney for McDaniel, who was Giddings' next-door neighbor, has said that McDaniel is innocent and will fight the charges.
Pallbearers on Saturday evening carried the dark wooden casket to the front of the church for the funeral Mass at St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church. There, mourners laid bouquets of flowers beneath a large photo of Giddings set up near the altar. A choir sang "Amazing Grace."
Many spoke of a kind, caring person with a bright future cut short prematurely.
"Lauren was the kind of person who didn't need to look for a good time, she made a good time in whatever she did. She truly enjoyed everything she did and she made sure everyone else did the same," a family friend, Garon Muller, told the crowd.
Stephanie O'Sullivan, a friend of the victim, told Baltimore-based WJZ-TV that the funeral Mass "definitely brought out a feeling of peace I hope her family will have." She added, "It's very tragic."
David Whitmire, a law school classmate of Giddings, noted how three people began their remembrances by calling Giddings "my best friend." She added, "I'm thinking, she was my best friend too."
Family members are turning to their faith to cope.
"Our faith believes that her spirit is who she is," Karen Giddings said, according to The Washington Post. "We're trying to hold onto that, and it's really being tested now."
The Post reported that Lauren Giddings was a devout Catholic and runner who aspired to be a public defender. Friends described her as showing an empathy for others, including her shy, more reclusive neighbor and classmate McDaniel.
Kaitlyn Giddings Wheeler, the victim's sister, told the newspaper: "If anyone would joke around about him, say something about him being dangerous, then Lauren would nicely tell them, 'Well, if he's dangerous, I'll be the only one who's safe.' Because they did get along, and she was very nice to him. She really did trust him."
Recently, authorities in Macon said a hacksaw had been recovered from an apartment complex where the younger Giddings and the classmate accused of killing her both lived. The arrest warrant served on the 25-year-old McDaniel says investigators found the saw's packaging inside his apartment, The Macon Telegraph reported.
Authorities say they found a torso wrapped in plastic in a garbage bin near the building. Authorities are still searching for other remains.
McDaniel, of Lilburn, Ga., appeared in court in that state Wednesday. His attorney, Floyd Buford, requested a commitment hearing, which was scheduled for Aug. 17. Buford said recently that he spoke with McDaniel about the murder charge before the hearing.
"He is adamant that he is innocent of these charges," Buford told The Telegraph. "He is disappointed the charges have been placed on him."
McDaniel and Giddings both graduated from Mercer's Walter F. George School of Law in May, and she was preparing to take Georgia's bar exam.
Macon Police Chief Mike Burns said Wednesday his department has gathered more than 200 pieces of evidence, conducted dozens of interviews and is confident about the case, but he would not talk about a motive.
Information from: The Macon Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com