After Nearly 40 Years, a Guilty Verdict

Federal Jury Convicts Reputed Klan Member in Black Sharecropper ' s 1966 Slaying

Washington Post/March 1, 2003
By Manuel Roig-Franzia

Jackson, Miss. -- It took nearly four decades, but today the family of a black sharecropper murdered as part of a plot that prosecutors said was designed to lure the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to southern Mississippi finally heard a word that once seemed inconceivable: Guilty.

The verdict in the case of Ernest Avants, 72, a reputed Ku Klux Klan member, was delivered here by a federal jury, which spent only a few hours deliberating after closing arguments in a trial that evoked memories of the often bloody backlash against the civil rights movement in parts of the Deep South .

Avants had been acquitted in state court in 1967, but federal prosecutors were able to revive the case because the bullet-riddled body of his victim -- Ben Chester White -- was found in 1966 on federal land in a secluded stretch of the Homochitto National Forest near Natchez , Miss. The trial marked a legal milestone because it is the first civil rights-era murder case prosecuted by federal authorities.

"Now I feel like I can see through the tunnel," said Jesse White, the victim ' s 65-year-old son. "It proves that our American justice system is very much alive and well. It shows the world."

The case had all the hallmarks of a string of recent civil rights-era murder cases: There was the aging defendant, weakened by a stroke and other health problems, grimly arriving each day at the courthouse in a wheelchair, and there was the testimony about an era of unmitigated, and largely unpunished, acts of racially motivated violence. Avants listened to the verdict from his wheelchair, but later, images of him walking stiffly in a line of inmates wearing bright orange prison jumpsuits flickered across televisions here.

Avants, who was taken into custody after being convicted of aiding and abetting murder, is scheduled to be sentenced May 9 and could face up to life in prison. Prosecutors have said they will not seek the death penalty. Avants ' s attorney said he will appeal the verdict.

Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi , called the verdict "a sign of the maturing South."

"It's like you're coming around the bend and seeing home," Glisson said.

U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton employed much of the same testimony to convict Avants this week that was used when he was acquitted in 1967.

"The difference was the attitude of the jurors," Lampton said, according to the Associated Press. "Hopefully it means the country will stop looking at Mississippi like we were still in the ' 60s."

Prosecutors said Avants and two other men -- James Lloyd Jones and Claude Fuller, both of whom are now dead -- lured White into the depths of the Homochitto by offering $2 and a soda to help with a chore. Jones, whose trial in the 1960s ended in a mistrial, gave a statement to investigators years ago that became a key piece of evidence in the trial this week. Jones told investigators that Fuller shot White 17 times with a rifle and that Avants delivered the final blow, firing a shotgun blast into White ' s head.

A former FBI agent, Allan Kornblum, testified that Avants once justified the shot by claiming that White was already dead at the time. Avants was even boastful, Kornblum said, bragging that he could not be convicted of "killing a dead man."

White was nothing more than bait to the killers, who wanted to incite racial tensions that might draw King to southern Mississippi , where Klansmen felt they would be able to assassinate him, prosecutors said. The ruse did not work. King, who was assassinated two years later in Memphis , did not visit the region.

The verdict issued here today follows other civil rights-era trials, cases that become harder and harder to prosecute as witnesses age, fogging their memories, or die. A former Klansman was convicted last May in the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham . And in 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in the 1963 death of civil rights activist Medgar Evars in Mississippi .

Adding Avants to their ignoble ranks gave some here hope, but still there were nagging doubts that anything could truly ease generations of pain. Sawandi Olugbala, 49, a substitute teacher who remembers his small-town Mississippi youth filled with segregated water fountains and blacks-only schools, said today that he had a hollow feeling when he heard that Avants was found guilty.

"That man has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel," said Olugbala, as he interrupted his reading on a bench a block from the courthouse. "If somebody commits a murder, or a crime, and gets away with it for almost 40 years . . . that ' s not justice."

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