Mississippi Klansman Found Guilty of 1966 Murder
Friday 28 February 2003
JACKSON, Miss. (Reuters) - A Mississippi jury on Friday found an aging former Klansman guilty of murdering a black farmhand in 1966 as part of a bizarre plot to lure and then assassinate civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Ernest Avants, accused of being part of a Ku Klux Klan trio who abducted and shot Ben Chester White in the Homochitto National Forest in southwest Mississippi, sat passively as the verdict from the racially mixed jury was read out in a federal court in Jackson, the state capital.
Avants, 72, who is in frail health, could face life in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 9. His two alleged co-conspirators are dead.
``It's like being hungry for so long and then getting a good meal under your belt,'' Jesse White, the victim's son, said when asked about the verdict. ``I was raised to forgive. ... They (the Avants family) have my prayers and sympathy.''
The government's case centered on gruesome medical evidence from a 1966 autopsy of White's mutilated body as well as what prosecutors said was a confession made by Avants during an interrogation by FBI agents the following year.
In closing arguments earlier on Friday, U.S. Department of Justice attorney Paige Fitzgerald said Avants' comments to the FBI removed any doubts he actively participated in the brutal crime.
``He confessed,'' Fitzgerald told the jury. ``He bragged, 'Yeah, I shot that nigger. ... I blew his head off with a shotgun.'''
Prosecutors have claimed that Avants and his alleged accomplices, Claude Fuller and James Jones, carried out the crime because they believed White's murder might prompt King to visit Natchez, where they might kill him.
But the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in Memphis two years later, never visited the Mississippi town after White's killing.
Avants' defense team countered there was little evidence linking their client to White's murder and that the prosecution's case rested largely on decades-old statements, which were read into the record this week.
But lead defense attorney Tom Royals said he expected the guilty verdict. ``It was no surprise,'' said Royals, who promised to file an appeal. ``Defending a case after about 40 years is almost impossible.''
The trial was the second time Avants faced a jury for the crime. He was acquitted by a Mississippi state court in 1967, but was retried by U.S. authorities because the murder was committed on federal land.
That allowed prosecutors to proceed despite the U.S. Constitution's protection against ``double jeopardy,'' which ensures defendants cannot be retried for the same crime.
Avants' trial was the latest in a flurry of 1960s-era civil rights crimes reopened by federal and state authorities in Mississippi and Alabama.
In 1994, a Mississippi jury found Klan member Byron de la Beckwith guilty of the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
In 2001, federal prosecutors convicted a former Klansman for the murder of four black girls in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church. A co-conspirator was convicted of the crime last year.
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