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2003-03-01 13:55:52

Avants convicted in civil rights era death From the National Desk Published 2/28/2003 6:03 PM

JACKSON, Miss., Feb. 28 (UPI) -- A Jackson, Miss., jury convicted Ernest Avants Friday of aiding and abetting the shooting death of a 67-year-old black sharecropper during the civil rights era 27 years ago.

Prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald said in closing arguments that the shooting of Ben Chester White was intended to lure Martin Luther King to southern Mississippi so the Ku Klux Klan could kill him.

It took the jury of two black women, one black man, one white man and eight white women less than four hours, including a lunch break, to reach a guilty verdict.

Avants, 72, was acquitted in state court in 1967 but was tried again in federal court on charges of aiding and abetting a murder.

The Justice Department revived the case in 1999 when lawyers discovered the slaying took place on federal land, enabling prosecutors to file new federal charges.

James Lloyd Jones and Claude Fuller were allegedly involved in the crime, but both have since died.

A statement by Jones, who said he drove the car for the other two, was read into the record. It said orders to kill White came from the Ku Klux Klan. Jones said Fuller shot White several times before Avants shot him with a shotgun.

"I shot that ....... I shot him. I blew his head off with a shotgun," former FBI agent Allen Kornblum quoted Avants as saying.

Court-appointed defense attorney Tom Royals agreed that medical reports show White was killed by a rifle rather than by a shotgun. He described Jones as a storyteller who made up the tale.

Avants attended the trial in a wheelchair, the result of the lingering effects of a stroke.

Kornblum testified that Avants had admitted shooting the victim, Ben Chester White.

"He said his lawyer told him he could not be convicted because he had a valid defense," Kornblum said.

He said another man had already killed the victim.

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