NYTimes.com Article: Former Klansman Is Found Guilty of 1966 Killing
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Former Klansman Is Found Guilty of 1966 Killing
March 1, 2003
By RICK BRAGG
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,
"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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