Not Guilty Plea Entered in 1966 Klan Slaying 9, 2000

A 68-year-old man pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges he participated in a Ku Klux Klan murder of a black farmhand almost 34 years ago.

A federal magistrate set bond at $100,000 for Ernest Avants, who was indicted Wednesday on one count of murder in the June 1966 slaying of 65-year-old Ben Chester White in western Mississippi. White, who was found dead in a creek near Natchez, had been shot 12 times with a rifle and once in the head with a shotgun.

Avants is the first person indicted on a federal murder charge for a civil rights-era crime. He was being held in the Warren County Jail after being arrested at his Bogue Chitto home.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger newspaper has reported that FBI documents indicate Avants confessed to authorities six months before he was tried on a state murder charge in 1967. The confession was never used and Avants was acquitted by a jury.

James Lloyd Jones and Claude Fuller also were accused in the crime. Jones' trial ended in a hung jury and the case was withdrawn. Fuller was never tried. Both men have since died.

Trial testimony indicated that the three Klansmen wanted to kill White in hopes it would bring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to the area so he could be assassinated.

Avants denied shooting White during an interview with the ABC-TV program "20/20" last November, but he added: "If I was tried now, hell, I'd be convicted."

White is one of 40 civil rights martyrs whose names are engraved on a civil rights memorial unveiled in Montgomery, Ala., in 1989.

The charges against Avants are the latest in a series of renewed investigations into murders that occurred during the civil rights era. The first was when prosecutors reviewed the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

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