Avants found guilty of 1966 murder

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 1, 2003

JACKSON &045; A federal jury convicted a 72-year-old man Friday in the 1966 slaying of a black sharecropper, a crime prosecutors say was staged to lure Martin Luther King Jr. to southern Mississippi to be assassinated.

Reputed Klansman Ernest Avants, a stroke survivor, remained seated in his wheelchair as the verdict was read.

Prosecutors said they won’t seek the death penalty, meaning Avants faces up to life in prison at sentencing May 9.

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Jesse White, the 65-year-old son of victim Ben Chester White, said after the verdict: ”It’s like being hungry for so, so long and you get a good meal under your belt. You’re not so hungry any more.”

&uot;I’m not surprised he was convicted &045; I felt he would be,&uot; said Bonnie Carter, daughter of Jimmy Carter, on whose property White lived and worked. But she reserved further comment until she sees what Avants’ sentence will be.

&uot;I’m kind of shocked. I was afraid it wouldn’t happen,&uot; said Dot Sojourner, an Adams County resident who testified at this weeks’ trial. Still, she said, &uot;the man (Avants) has already lived his life. I don’t know why it took them so long.&uot;

Avants is the latest white defendant in recent years to be convicted of crimes from the nation’s civil rights era and he could be one of the last. The verdict was returned just a few hours after final arguments in the case and just three days after the trial began.

Avants was acquitted of murder during a state trial in 1967, but the federal charge of aiding and abetting murder was filed after authorities realized recently the victim had been killed on federal land.

Prosecutors told the jury 37 years could not wash away the horror of White’s slaying or allow his killer to go free.

”You won’t find an instruction that you get a pass after you’re 65 years old,” prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald said. ”Tell Mr. White that you know there is no amount of time that can forgive this crime.”

The judge had barred hate-crime evidence from the trial, but prosecutors freely noted that White was black and the three suspects in the case were all white. The defense argued the case hinged largely on statements by a long-dead suspect they said was a chronic liar.

Prosecutors said Avants and two white companions offered the 67-year-old White $2 and a soda to help them with a chore. White, who had no connection with the civil rights movement, was driven to a national forest, shot to death and dumped into a creek bed.

Defense attorneys said the entire case hinged on statements made by the late James Lloyd Jones, who told authorities years ago he was with Avants when White was murdered. Jones’ state trial ended in a mistrial.

Jones’ confession was read aloud to the jury.

Defense attorney Tom Royals said Jones had ”lied to the court, to the lawyers, to himself and to that Jesus he likes to talk about so much when he’s trying to get through another lie.”

But prosecutors also put former FBI agent Allan Kornblum on the witness stand, where he said Avants confessed to shooting White.

He also said Avants thought he could beat a murder charge by arguing that another man had fired the fatal shot before Avants opened fire.

”He confessed,” Fitzgerald said of Avants. ”He thought he was so clever. ‘I can’t be convicted of killing a dead man,’ he bragged to Allan Kornblum.”

According to Jones, Avants and Claude Fuller, who also is dead, drove White to a bridge in the forest.

Once in the forest, Fuller got out of the vehicle and began firing a rifle at White while the victim was still in the car, hitting him about 17 times, Jones said. Avants then shot White with a shotgun, Jones said.

”Fuller said he had orders from higher up (in the Ku Klux Klan). That he wanted to pull them off that march in Jackson. They thought maybe they might get him (White) and old Martin Luther King Jr.,” Jones said.

Prosecutor Jack Lacy noted the possible connection to the jury.

White ”had the affrontage to have skin that was not the same color as Ernest Avants,” Lacy said. ”The plan was to kill Ben Chester White and make sure he was dead and perhaps get old Martin Luther King down to Natchez to see why.”

The civil rights leader, who was scheduled to visit Jackson that year for a march, didn’t come to southern Mississippi. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., two years later.