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NYTimes.com Article: Former Klansman Is Found Guilty of 1966 Killing

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  • harveen@singnet.com.sg
    This article from NYTimes.com has been sent to you by harveen@singnet.com.sg. Interesting article harveen@singnet.com.sg Former Klansman Is Found Guilty of
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2003
      This article from NYTimes.com
      has been sent to you by harveen@....

      Interesting article


      Former Klansman Is Found Guilty of 1966 Killing

      March 1, 2003

      JACKSON, Miss., Feb. 28 - Ben Chester White used twists of
      wire to hold the soles on his shoes, patched his own
      clothes with scrap and said "yes, sir," to white men, and
      when he made a little money, he wrapped the $1 bills in wax
      paper so they would not be ruined by his own sweat. He was
      not registered to vote, and had never fought against the
      segregation that was as much a fact of life for him as a
      hoe handle or cotton sack.

      He died huddled in a car's back seat, killed by men who
      needed a piece of bait, who needed to kill a black man so
      brutally in the summer of 1966 that the act itself would
      lure the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez, Miss.,
      so that they could assassinate him.

      Today, in a federal courtroom in Jackson, Mr. White, the
      67-year-old field hand, became, officially, a martyr of the
      civil rights movement.

      After just three hours of deliberations and a three-day
      trial, a jury of nine whites and three blacks found Ernest
      Avants, 72, a former Klansman and the last living suspect
      in this old case, guilty of murdering Mr. White as part of
      a beer-inspired plot to draw Dr. King down to them.

      "Imagine the hatred," said Paige Fitzgerald, a trial lawyer
      with the United States Department of Justice, after helping
      to convict Mr. Avants.

      It was just the latest of several convictions over the last
      decade of old killers in civil rights cases who thought
      they had gotten clean away. But it was the first federal
      murder trial, and the first to involve a victim who was not
      a civil rights hero or well-known casualty, like Medgar
      Evers, a civil rights hero in Mississippi, or the four
      girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing.

      "This courtroom has been a time machine where the past and
      the present have collided," said Jack Lacy, the federal
      prosecutor who tried the case here.

      Mr. Avants, who has suffered a stroke and other health
      problems, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. His
      wife, Martha, sat near him, impassive, her arms crossed on
      her chest. Mr. Avants had predicted this, speaking to a
      reporter four years ago.

      "Hell," he said then, "they'll probably convict me this

      He was acquitted in state court in 1967, despite the
      testimony of an F.B.I. agent who said that Mr. Avants had
      confessed to the crime, and he seemed destined to live out
      his life a free man.

      But the revelation that Mr. White's body had been found on
      federal land, in a national forest, gave prosecutors a way
      around the double jeopardy protections that had shielded
      Mr. Avants, and, years ago, they began building their case.
      Everything he had ever said about the case was relevant and
      damaging, all over again.

      This week, the F.B.I. agent who had heard him confess in
      1967, Allan Kornblum, returned to Mississippi to again tell
      the jury what he heard.

      "I blew his head off with a shotgun," Mr. Kornblum
      testified that Mr. Avants told him in 1967.

      But this time, in a racial climate that is more prone to
      automatically condemn such behavior than to automatically
      dismiss it or condone it, as was the case then, the jury
      came back with a guilty verdict.

      For Mr. White's son, Jesse White, it was like finally being
      fed after living his whole life hungry.

      "Like a good meal," said Mr. White, 65. "It feels good."

      Mr. Lacy, in his closing argument, described how three
      Klansmen, Claude Fuller, James Jones and Mr. Avants,
      hatched a plot to kill a black man so brutally that it
      would draw Dr. King away from other concerns, so that they
      could get at him.

      Under the premise of searching for a lost dog, they lured
      Mr. White into their car with the offer of a strawberry pop
      and $2. "They stopped at a store, bought beer and drove Ben
      Chester White out of his life," Mr. Lacy said.

      According to Mr. Jones, a long-dead witness whose testimony
      was read into the court's record, Mr. Avants blew Mr.
      White's head off with a shotgun after Mr. Fuller fired 15
      to 18 bullets into him from an automatic rifle, murdering
      him in the back seat of a 1966 Chevrolet as he cried out,
      "Oh Lord, what have I done to deserve this."

      To corroborate that testimony from Mr. Jones, who was
      granted a mistrial in 1967 despite confessing to taking
      part in the killing, prosecutors in the new trial brought
      Mr. Kornblum back into the courtroom.

      "An eyewitness account and the murderer himself makes a
      confession?" Ms. Fitzgerald said. "It doesn't get any
      better than that."

      The lawyer for Mr. Avants, Tom Royals, argued throughout
      the trial that the prosecution's case hinged on a liar's

      Mr. Jones, a drunk who had failed at most things he had
      ever tried, fabricated the story of the murder to save his
      own skin, Mr. Royals said.

      He told prosecutors in 1966 that he was afraid he would
      burn in hell if he did not confess.

      The prosecutors, in 2003, said it was just a man trying to
      get right with God before he died. The defense lawyers
      derided it as a habitual liar's false use of religion as a

      "I lied as long as my conscience would let me and then I
      broke down and told the truth," Mr. Jones said at the time.
      In fact, he did give differing versions of his involvement
      in the case.

      "That's what I liked about Jones, he was always breaking
      down and telling the truth," Mr. Royals said.

      Prosecutors painted a picture of a man who only drove the
      car, who was horrified after brains and gore splashed on
      him from the shotgun blast.

      Mr. Royals asked the jury if they would want such a man to
      be their doctor or stockbroker.

      "I lie when I need to want to," said Mr. Royals, pretending
      to quote Mr. Jones. "I lie sometimes, but I'm telling the
      truth now, so believe me."

      Ms. Fitzgerald countered with these words, "Crimes
      committed in hell do not have angels for witnesses."

      Mr. Avants is to be sentenced in May, and the likely
      outcome of that will be life in prison, legal experts said.
      Mr. Avants is in such poor health, his lawyers said, that
      any sentence may be a life sentence.

      Mr. Royals said he would appeal the case, based on a
      judge's ruling that allowed Mr. Jones's testimony to be
      read into the record. He could not cross-examine Mr. Jones,
      he said.

      "It was almost impossible," he said, to give his client the
      defense he needed.

      Although it is unlikely that Mr. White, a Baptist deacon
      who dug graves to earn a little extra money, will go down
      in history alongside men like Dr. King, Mr. Evers and other
      civil rights heroes, the outcome of the abbreviated trial
      makes sure that his name and the circumstances of his death
      will not just vanish into the ground with other unsolved
      crimes of that era, said prosecutors.

      "Tell Mr. White," Ms. Fitzgerald said in her closing, "that
      there is no amount of time that can forgive this crime."


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