Read the Full '20/20' Transcript

This is an uncorrected and unedited transcript of the "20/20" broadcast which first aired June 14, 2000.

ABC NEWS

Good evening. And welcome to 20/20 WEDNESDAY. Diane and Charlie are off. Tonight, we are devoting most of this hour to a special report. Explosive new developments in a continuing investigation. Three murders that have never been solved. They occurred during one of this country's darkest chapters when bigotry bred violence and the law looked the other way. Two black teen-agers offered a ride and then killed in cold blood. An elderly black farmhand shot to death at close range. Decades have passed and their stories have faded. But now, our investigation has brought these cases back to life and just maybe justice will prevail at last.

(VO) THOMAS MOORE visits the grave of his brother Charles who was murdered along with a friend 36 years ago. There was evidence, informants, even two arrests, but nobody was ever convicted of murder.

(OC) What kind of men would do that to someone like your brother?

THOMAS MOORE

Hate. Ignorant. Not being able to accept a person as who they are.

ABC NEWS

(VO) He owns only a single image of his younger brother, a college student. Of the other victim, Henry Dee, there isn't even a photo. Thomas has been plagued by the murders. When he returned from Vietnam, he earned a second college degree and dedicated it in the name of his brother and in the name of justice.

THOMAS MOORE

I will pursue this as far as I can until I die trying to find out who did this and why.

ABC NEWS

(VO) It was May 2nd, 1964, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, both 19, were offered a ride in Meadville, Mississippi, taken deep into the nearby Homochitto National Forest and beaten, their bodies dumped into the Mississippi River. Two alleged Klansman, James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards were arrested.

JT ROBINSON

When they made the arrests on those people, I didn't have any doubt in my mind that that's the one that done it. I didn't.

ABC NEWS

(VO) J.T. Robinson was police chief in nearby Natchez.

(OC) You think that Charles Marcus Edwards killed those two men?

JT ROBINSON

I think he was part -- he was with James Seale and they done it.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Both suspects were soon freed. An FBI investigation petered out. And as we learned in a surprising response to our inquiry, the entire FBI file on the case was destroyed in 1977 or so they thought. Until this headline appeared recently in the Jackson-Clarion Ledger over a story by reporter Jerry Mitchell.

JERRY MITCHELL

And so then I was able to go back to the FBI and go, 'Wait a minute, you know, those files weren't destroyed, here are copies.'

ABC NEWS

(VO) From a different source, 20/20 obtained an unredacted copy of the FBI file. Nearly a thousand pages of reports, notes, diagrams, maps and photographs. But most revealing was the fact that the FBI had one very important informant. An informant who remained anonymous, refusing to testify in open court for fear of retaliation from the Klan. Retired FBI assistant director Jim Ingram was at the time a special agent assigned to the case. He remembers the informant code name JN-30.

JIM INGRAM

JN-30 was so important to the FBI that the agents themselves did not know his identity, except two agents that worked or handled him.

ABC NEWS

Informant JN-30 provided the FBI with crucial information about the murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. From the beginning here on Highway 84 in tiny Meadville to the murky depths of the Mississippi River some 40 miles away. According to JN-30 the killers confided in him in horrifying detail about what transpired just after the two young men were last seen near this roadside drive-in.

(VO) JN-30 said James Ford Seale picked up Charles Moore and Henry Dee. Followed by Charles Edwards and Seale's father, Clyde, in a pickup, they drove into the forest, tied the victims to a tree and beat them. Reeling a shotgun, James Seale harangued them about an imagined black Muslim plot to arm local blacks.

(OC) At that time, did you think it was possible that your brother was killed just because the color of his skin?

THOMAS MOORE

Absolutely. No other reason. No other reason.

ABC NEWS

Did you suspect that Klansmen had killed him?

THOMAS MOORE

Yes.

ABC NEWS

(VO) According to JN-30, James Seale's brother, Jack, and a prominent local landowner, Ernest Parker, put the victims into the trunk of a car and drove to a remote landing on the Mississippi River. Moore and Dee were tied to a jeep engine block and dropped into the muddy water. Six months later, Navy divers found the engine block, a skull and other evidence exactly where JN-30 told them to look. The FBI was convinced their suspects were the killers. But in 1964, Thomas Moore knew not to expect justice.

THOMAS MOORE

Did I believe that they would be arrested and convicted? No. No. ABC NEWS

No way?

THOMAS MOORE

No way.

ABC NEWS

(VO) And he was right. The FBI investigation soon hit a wall.

JIM INGRAM

We, in the FBI, felt there was sufficient evidence. But if the prosecutor is not going to move forward, that -- that stops it at the time.

ABC NEWS

(VO) The FBI file shows that with the informant too fearful to testify and a lack of other witnesses, the district attorney felt he could not prosecute the suspects. Three of them lived out their lives and died free men. The two who were arrested briefly in 1964 are still alive. According to the file during questioning, one of them, James Ford Seale, was told the FBI knew he was involved in the murders. Seale replied: 'Yes, but I'm not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it.'

MAN

Hello. Mr. Seale?

JAMES SEALE

Yeah.

MAN

How you doing?

JAMES SEALE Pretty good.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Today, James Seale travels the country in his luxury motor home. We found him camped near Natchez.

JAMES SEALE

I have nothing to say to you.

MAN

Nothing to say? JAMES SEALE

The best thing for you to do is get your ass up that hill.

MAN

All right, sir. All right. Did you have anything to do with the killing of those two boys?

JAMES SEALE

Get up the hill.

ABC NEWS

(VO) According to the FBI file, when he was under arrest, Charles Marcus Edwards confessed that he, Seale and others took the victims to some woods and whipped them. But he said they were still alive when he left. We found Edwards last year living quietly in the country outside Natchez.

(OC) Did you murder Henry Dee and Charles Moore?

CHARLES EDWARDS

I did not. I did not murder those two kids.

ABC NEWS

The investigators said that you told them that you and a couple of other guys picked up Henry Dee and Charles Moore, took them to the forest…

CHARLES EDWARDS

They told you a lie because I hadn't said that.

ABC NEWS

Mr. Edwards, back in the 1960s, do you think you would have called yourself a racist?

CHARLES EDWARDS

Well, I was prejudice, yeah.

ABC NEWS

(VO) To this day, the entire case remains in limbo. But that could soon change. We have found the FBI's star informant, JN-30, and now he is ready to go public.

ERNEST GILBERT

I wish to God I would never have known about this. I really do.

ABC NEWS

In a moment, you will meet the man they call JN-30. We'll be right back.

ANNOUNCER

He was an imperial wizard of the KKK. Now he is speaking out for the first time about the unsolved murders of two teen-age boys.

ERNEST GILBERT

They were taken to the Mississippi River, weights were tied on them and they were thrown in the river alive.

(Commercial break)

ABC NEWS

When the bodies of Charles Moore and Henry Dee, two black 19-year-olds, were discovered in the Mississippi River in 1964, their families suspected it was the work of the Ku Klux Klan. They never thought they would see the murders solved. But little did they know that one was quietly trying to seek justice. Now, he tells his story for the first time.

ERNEST GILBERT

(From tape) The white people in this state are going to war. And to hell with who tries to stop them.

ABC NEWS

(VO) He was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan who says he knew the killers of Charles Moore and Henry Dee.

Mr. GILBERT: They murdered those two young boys, cold-blooded murder.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Now 36 years later, he's decided to go public for the first time and reveal what he knows.

ERNEST GILBERT

I'm doing that because I'd like to clear my conscience.

ABC NEWS

(VO) His name is ERNEST GILBERT

. (OC) Mr. Gilbert, were the killers of Charles Moore and Henry Dee white knights of the KKK?

ERNEST GILBERT

Yes, they were.

ABC NEWS

Every single one of them?

ERNEST GILBERT

Yes.

(From tape) We the officers and members of the original knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi…

ABC NEWS

(VO) ERNEST GILBERT

was once the KKK's chief spokesman and for a time its leader in Mississippi.

(OC) Were you elected to the position of imperial wizard?

ERNEST GILBERT

Imperial wizard.

ABC NEWS

That was your title?

ERNEST GILBERT

And the white knights.

ABC NEWS

(VO) He was also chief organizer, secretly recruiting officers of the law.

(OC) Did you recruit sheriff's deputies? Sheriffs themselves?

ERNEST GILBERT

Yes, I did.

ABC NEWS

Police officers?

ERNEST GILBERT

Yes.

ABC NEWS

And they all secretly belonged to the Klan?

ERNEST GILBERT

They secretly belonged to the Klan.

ABC NEWS

(VO)Ernest Gilbert's home movies form a silent archive of racist rallies, marches, parades and cross burnings. His wife happily shows off a shotgun. Here Gilbert pours himself a drink and reloads his nub-nose revolver before going to bed. The audio is from one of his speeches.

ERNEST GILBERT

(From tape I'll tell you this. I am a man of violence. I am. If ERNEST GILBERT

's going to do something, I'm damn well going to get the job done and ain't nobody ever going to know about it.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Today, ERNEST GILBERT

says that was all just talk. That all the while he was torn up inside because a friend and fellow Klansman Jack Seale and others confessed to him that they murdered Charles Moore and Henry Dee.

(OC) How did you find out who killed Moore and Dee?

ERNEST GILBERT

I was told by the members that committed the act. They came to me and told me all the gory details of it. And I asked them, `Why in the hell are you telling me this?'

ABC NEWS

What did they say?

ERNEST GILBERT

They said, `Well, if anything ever comes of it and--and we want you to know so you can protect us.'

ABC NEWS

(VO) Even now Gilbert finds it difficult to repeat what he was told.

ERNEST GILBERT

Those kids were abused awful and beaten, and -- and they begged for their lives. I was told all of this. And then they were taken to the Mississippi River, weights were tied on them and they were thrown in the river alive.

ABC NEWS

Alive?

ERNEST GILBERT

Alive.

ABC NEWS

How did you react to them?

ERNEST GILBERT

Like I said, I lost my mind. I lost my soul. And I finally decided that something had to be done.

ABC NEWS

(VO) You went to the FBI?

ERNEST GILBERT

Because there was no one else I could turn to. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I was beginning to die. Well, I did die inside. And I couldn't live with it.

ABC NEWS

(VO) And yet, in his home movies, Gilbert appears at ease with Jack Seale, one of the alleged killers. Here they prepare for a Klan rally, Seale wearing sunglasses. Here Seale drives while taunting the camera. And so began the dual life of Ernest Gilbert as informant JN-30, an FBI mole inside the KKK, activated in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1964. Today, Natchez is a genteel place, overflowing with southern charm. But in the mid '60s, it was an armed camp in a virtual war between the White Knights and civil-rights groups.

JT ROBINSON

The black people would watch at 10:00 in the morning on Saturday and the Klan would ride all night long.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Police chief J.T. Robinson patrolled the streets with a shotgun in this upside-down town where the Ku Klux Klan had an office on Main Street and the NAACP worked underground.

(OC) Which group did you most fear?

JT ROBINSON

The White Knights.

ABC NEWS

(VO) In this rarified atmosphere, Gilbert went to work preaching hate…

ERNEST GILBERT

(From file footage) I am damn proud of what I am because I know what a Klansman really is.

ABC NEWS

(VO) …while plumbing the depths of his friendships and generating enough information for this stack of documents obtained by 20/20. In them, he names and quotes the alleged killers. Jack Seale, saying the victims were dumped in the river alive because shooting them would have gotten blood all over the boat. James Ford Seale saying he had taped the victims' mouths and wrists. Ernest Parker, worried that the jeep-engine block the victims were tied to would be traced to him. Clyde Seale saying that Charles Edwards had a bad case of conscience.

(OC) Was it difficult for you to try and remain friends with them even though in you knew in your heart that you had told the FBI what they did?

ERNEST GILBERT

You better believe it. It's difficult to this minute. Were they friends? Yes, they were. And did I rat on my friends? Yes, I did.

ABC NEWS

Were you personally ever involved in the killings of Moore and Dee?

ERNEST GILBERT

Hell no, I was never personally involved.

ABC NEWS

(VO) The passing years have erased many of the details from his memory. For example, he remembers nothing of Charles Edwards. But he remains riddled with guilt because he does remember everything of the fiery speeches he gave when he was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

ERNEST GILBERT

(From file footage) I think they ought to shoot down every damn nigger that goes out here to burn a building. Or, goes out here to demonstrate. I think they ought to take them guns and kill them just as fast as they stick their heads up. How did I know that I'm not the cause of--if you was in the Klan, you had something to do with it because you represented the biggest hate group that ever walked the earth.

ABC NEWS

Do you now regret being a member of the Klan?

ERNEST GILBERT

You damn right I do. I would give anything in the world if I had never heard the name of the Ku Klux Klan.

ABC NEWS

Do you regret the violence that occurred?

ERNEST GILBERT

You better believe I regret the violence that occurred. Why else would I be here?

ABC NEWS

(VO) Apparently, he does not want to offer himself as a witness, should this interview revive the case against the two surviving suspects.

(OC) If James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards are brought to trial, will you testify against them?

ERNEST GILBERT

I will not testify against them. They have all of the information. What good is it going to do me to get up there and testify -- and the people say, 'Well, hell he was one of them, how can he testify again?' Any juror is going to turn them loose.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Charles Edwards was turned loose soon after he was arrested back in 1964. He said he's a religious man who has been blessed with a full life ever since.

CHARLES EDWARDS

It's been good. I've raised -- I've had a good job all my life, and I raised five kids, had the American dream.

ABC NEWS

(VO) After 36 years when Thomas Moore visits his brother's grave, he still speaks of pain.

THOMAS MOORE

I love you and I miss you.

ABC NEWS

(VO) But now, he also speaks of hope and justice.

THOMAS MOORE

Hopefully, the end will come to this and we can rest, and you can have peace that justice did prevail.

ERNEST GILBERT

God told Cain, "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground." I want -- I want -- I want justice for those kids, that's what I want.

ABC NEWS

That's why you've come forward now?

ERNEST GILBERT

Yes. This is not about me. This is not about you. This is about two little kids that were brutally murdered. And were innocent.

ABC NEWS

In light of our interview, Justice Department sources tell us the FBI is reactivating the Dee/Moore murder case. FBI agents reportedly will meet with Ernest Gilbert. As one source put it, "It's a whole new ball game." Gilbert says he is still fearful of the KKK and asked us not to reveal his whereabouts. When we come back, new evidence, new twists in another unsolved murder. And you'll hear from men whose racist words will absolutely stun you.

ANNOUNCER

An innocent man brutally murdered. A confession read in court. So why did this juror vote, not guilty?

JOHN DAWSON

The only thing they ever proved to me was that that…(censored by network)…was dead.

ANNOUNCER

Thirty-four years later, is it too late for JUSTICE AT LAST, when 20/20 continues?

(Commercial break)

ABC NEWS

Now to Adams County, Mississippi to the scene of another horrific murder from the darkest days of the civil-rights era. Now we should warn you that some of the language you'll hear is racially charged and offensive, but we've left it in our story so you can judge for yourself the state of mind of some of the people involved.

(VO) Deep in the Mississippi forest, Jesse White visits the place where his father's bullet-riddled body was dumped over a bridge 34 years ago.

JESSE WHITE

I miss him very much. I often think about the tragic fate that was dealt to him.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Ben Chester White was a simple man, a 67-year-old farmhand who kept to himself.

JESSE WHITE

He was a mild man, a quiet fellow.

ABC NEWS

(VO) He was not active in civil rights, yet he was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And despite the reported confessions of two suspects, there has been no justice for White's family for more than three decades.

JESSE WHITE

There's something that kind of like eats away at you, and knowing that this isn't right --that -- when will it be right?

ABC NEWS

(VO) It was hot and sunny on June 12, 1966, the day Ben Chester White's body was found face-down in this creek near Natchez, Mississippi. He had been shot more than a dozen times with an assault rifle and once with a shotgun blast so powerful it blew the brains out of his head.

JT ROBINSON

Shot him with a shotgun.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Former Natchez police chief J.T. Robinson says during a late-night rendezvous shortly after the murder, he received a confession from a Klansman named James Lloyd Jones.

JT ROBINSON

He said, "I'm going to tell you something." He said, "I was involved with something that's absolutely -- it's terrible." And he said, "I can't live with it."

ABC NEWS

He confessed to you?

JT ROBINSON

What he said, he told me that Fuller, Avants had killed Ben Chester White.

ABC NEWS

Claude Fuller and Ernest Gilbert.

JT ROBINSON

That's right.

ABC NEWS

(VO) He fingered 43-year-old Claude Fuller and 35-year-old Ernest Avants as the triggermen. In a then-secret FBI document, both were named as members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. James Lloyd Jones, a World War II veteran, confessed that he drove them and Ben Chester White to the bridge where the murder took place. But Chief Robinson knew that even with a confession, there would likely be no justice.

(OC) Did you really feel it was impossible to convict a white man of killing a black man?

JT ROBINSON

Yeah, I did then. Yes, I did.

ABC NEWS

(VO) He says what happened in this Natchez court room proved him right. There was a hung jury in the trial of James Lloyd Jones. Avants received an outright acquittal. Fuller was not even put on trial. All three accused were set free, which is where the case stood for more than 30 years, a grave injustice says Chief Robinson, one he still wishes could be rectified.

JT ROBINSON

I'm at a loss at how you can dig up anything on them. I mean, I'm just, complete loss. I've tried to think, you know, what can we do for these kind of cases, you know?

ABC NEWS

There were many questions about the murder of Ben Chester White. So, last spring we at 20/20 launched our own investigation. We wanted to know how three accused murderers could be set free, even though at least one confessed. What happened to the evidence? We came here to a musty basement in the Historic Natchez Foundation, where we discovered not only the transcript of the James Lloyd Jones trial, but his confession, in which he describes in mind-numbing detail the planning and the execution of the murder, implicating himself and his two co-accused, Claude Fuller and Ernest Avants.

1ST OFFSCREEN VOICE

(Reading from Jones' confession) We rode on down there in that forest, Claude Fuller claimed he had lost a shepherd dog and got Ben Chester White to go with us to hunt the dog.

ABC NEWS

(VO) We had an actor read excerpts from Jones' lost confessions, just as they were read into the record at his trial.

1ST OFFSCREEN VOICE

(Reading from Jones' confession) Fuller told me just as I got to the bridge to stop. That's the bridge where we killed him. He reached and got his rifle and throwed a shell in it, and then he opened the door where the old darky was sitting and said, 'All right, pop, get out!' When the darky seen him with that rifle, he said, 'Lord, what have I done to deserve this?' He just withered down in the back seat. The first shots were made by Fuller. He opened up that rifle and there was two bursts of it. Then Fuller told Ernest Avants, 'All right, now you shoot him.' And Avants shot him.

JT ROBINSON

It blew his brains and things, in the car, on Mr. Jones.

ABC NEWS

Y -- you mean Mr. White's brains splattered on Mr. Jones?

JT ROBINSON

Yeah, on Mr. Jones. Inside the car.

1ST OFFSCREEN VOICE

(Reading from Jones' confession) I got out of the car and helped them drag him out, and throwed him over the rail.

ABC NEWS

(VO) At the end of the week-long trial, a 12-man jury, nine white and three black, went behind closed doors to deliberate Jones' fate. But they were unable to reach a verdict.

(OC) It was a hung jury?

JT ROBINSON

That's right.

ABC NEWS

How is that possible?

JT ROBINSON

The Klansmen.

ABC NEWS

The Klansmen?

JT ROBINSON

On the -- on the -- on the jury.

ABC NEWS

(VO) We returned to that old building in Natchez and uncovered the jury list. We found seven had died. Of the survivors, four agreed to return to the courtroom to talk about the case. Among them there were no dissenters.

(OC) How many of you thought that James Lloyd Jones was guilty? Without any doubt?

RAY COLTER

Yes.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Alternate juror Ray Colter and the rest of this group shared suspicions about other members of the jury.

RAY COLTER

The remarks that -- that we heard, you know, in -- at lunch, dinner, back at the hotel, that I just got the feeling there were a couple of jurors that were not going to vote for him to be guilty.

ABC NEWS

But they had their minds made up before hearing the evidence?

RAY COLTER Yes.

ABC NEWS

Were these jurors white?

RAY COLTER

Yes.

ABC NEWS

In fact, they were determined not to find a white man guilty of killing a black man?

RAY COLTER

That was a feeling I had.

ABC NEWS

(VO) So if the Klan had a sinker in the jury room, who was it? The documents we recovered include the names of two other surviving jurors: Frank Nolan Dungan, who would not tell us how he voted, and John Dawson, who agreed to meet with our producer.

JOHN DAWSON

Come in.

PRODUCER

How you doing?

ABC NEWS

(VO) We used a home video camera to tape an interview in which Dawson confirmed he voted not guilty.

JOHN DAWSON

Only thing they ever proved to me was that that nigger was dead. That's all they ever proved to me, he -- he died, and he's dead. Who done it? Ain't never proved a…(censored by network).

ABC NEWS

(VO) But what about the confession?

JOHN DAWSON

Well, I never heard it if there was. Nobody ever -- never -- they never brought that out in no courtroom.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Actually, the confession took up about a third of the trial transcript. But if Dawson didn't remember that, he did recall confronting a black juror during deliberations.

JOHN DAWSON

I asked one of them niggers one day, I said, `How you know he's guilty?' He says, `They say he is.' They say? Well...(censored by network)…I could have said it, you could have said that, it don't make it true.

ABC NEWS

(VO) We asked Dawson, was he a member of the Ku Klux Klan?

JOHN DAWSON

Nope. Now, you may get some people say I was, but I tell it to you or anybody else to prove it that I was.

ABC NEWS

(VO) We took up the challenge and found records from this bank in Natchez dating back to 1965. A signature card revealed that John Dawson was a signing officer for the United Klans of America, Realm of Mississippi. Several cancelled checks bear his signature and the imprint of the Klan. The signature appears to match one on a 34-year-old hotel reservation, which includes the address where John Dawson lives to this day. We paid him another visit, but this time the reception wasn't as friendly.

(OC) (At Dawson's front door) Hello, Mr. Dawson, my name is ABC News, I'm with ABC News. And we have cameras. Mr. Dawson?

(VO) There was no retrial of James Lloyd Jones. In the case of Claude Fuller, there was no trial at all. We found out why in those boxes of court records. It seems Jones and Fuller later claimed they were physically unable to endure a rigorous murder trial. They gave the identical excuse of ulcers and arthritis. Incredibly, the judge agreed, ordered the charges withdrawn, and set Jones and Fuller free.

Ernest Avants was also freed after a brief trial ended with a jury finding him not guilty.

(OC) Just recently, the FBI discovered a key piece of evidence, another confession by James Lloyd Jones, one given at a preliminary hearing here at the courthouse in Natchez. And lately, even more lost court documents have been turning up. In this document dug up by the Clarion Ledger, Ernest Avants confirms he was there on the bridge the night Ben Chester White was murdered.

JERRY MITCHELL, REPORTER, THE CLARION LEDGER

It showed that Avants showed up at the sheriff's doorsteps, was frightened.

ABC NEWS

(VO) And made his admission to the sheriff, Odell Anders and county attorney Edwin Benoit (ph).

JERRY MITCHELL

Here you have a confession to -- not only to the sheriff, but to the prosecutor in the case, and they don't use it.

ABC NEWS

(VO) The prosecutor Benoit is deceased. But he told the FBI he didn't use the confession in part because avants had been drinking when he gave it. The sheriff Anders is still alive, but declined to give us an interview. We had other questions for him: about this letter from the FBI to the governor of Mississippi and at least two other independent FBI reports naming him as a secret member of the Ku Klux Klan. In the past, Anders has denied it. As for the suspects, Claude Fuller and James Lloyd Jones both lived out their lives and died free men. We found Ernest Avants last August living in a trailer home parked in the tiny southern Mississippi town of Bogue Chitto.

ERNEST AVANTS

I can't hardly believe this.

ABC NEWS

Ernest Avants was happy to sit down and talk. Tried and acquitted 33 years ago for the murder of Ben Chester White, he thought he was home free. But 20/20 uncovered something that was about to give Ernest Avants the surprise of his life.

ANNOUNCER

An unsolved murder and a startling 20/20 discovery leads to an arrest 34 years after the crime.

ABC NEWS

Mr. Avants! Mr. Avants!

ANNOUNCER

When 20/20 continues after this from our ABC stations. (Commercial break)

Ernest Avants is the last surviving suspect in the unsolved murder of an elderly black farmhand. For 34 years, the family of Ben Chester White has waited for justice. And right now, it could be closer than ever.

(VO) The place where Ben Chester White has murdered has changed over three decades. The bridge is broken down. The road abandoned, taken back by the forest. And the victim forgotten by Mississippi justice. But for the man found not guilty, Ernest Avants, some things never seem to change. For example, his racist beliefs.

ERNEST AVANTS

A white man has run this world. A white man has run this United States. That's why it's great like it is.

ABC NEWS

(VO) On local society in the '60s…

ERNEST AVANTS

The Jews own Adams County and the Catholics run it and the niggers enjoyed it.

ABC NEWS

(VO) But on the murder of Ben Chester White.

(OC) Did you kill Ben Chester White?

ERNEST AVANTS

No, I did not.

ABC NEWS

Did you shoot him with a shotgun?

ERNEST AVANTS

No, I did not.

ABC NEWS

Did you have anything to do with the murder of Ben Chester White?

ERNEST AVANTS

No, I did not.

ABC NEWS

This is part of the confession that was read at James Lloyd Jones' trial. `How many times did the shotgun shoot?' And Jones said, `One time.' `Who was the man who shot the shotgun?' `A fellow named Avants.' That's you.

ERNEST AVANTS

But I didn't hear -- hear that read. Whatever was read, and whatever James Jones said, was a bold faced lie.

ABC NEWS

Why would he lie?

ERNEST AVANTS

Why?

ABC NEWS

Why would he implicate…

ERNEST AVANTS

Why if this nigger was killed like they said he was, why wouldn't the buzzards eat him? The buzzards won't eat nothing that die of rabies or poison.

ABC NEWS

So let me get this straight. You are saying that because the buzzards didn't get at Ben Chester White's body, that he had to have died of either rabies or poison?

ERNEST AVANTS

Evidently.

ABC NEWS

Not gunshot wounds?

ERNEST AVANTS

Evidently.

ABC NEWS

(VO) But when Ernest Avants went on trial, two FBI agents testified that he also confessed. They were questioning him on the truck bombing of a civil rights worker, when suddenly Avants changed the subject to Ben Chester White.

ALAN KORNBLUM

He said, and I'm quoting him, "Yeah, I shot that nigger."

ABC NEWS

(VO) One of the agents, Alan Kornblum, agreed to an interview on the condition that his face be concealed because he now works in intelligence. ALAN KORNBLUM

We were both stunned about his admissions, they were graphic, were very specific. He said that the other individual had emptied his carving, the full magazine, into Ben Chester White after which he emptiedb -- bhe fired the shotgun.

ABC NEWS

You were interviewed by two FBI agents, Alan Kornblum…

ERNEST AVANTS

Kornblum was from New York and he was a Jew.

ABC NEWS

(VO) According to Kornblum, Avants bragged that while he did shoot Ben Chester White, he could not be found guilty of murder.

ALAN KORNBLUM He said he 'blew his head off with a shotgun, but he was already dead. And my lawyers told me you can't convict me for killing a dead guy.'

ERNEST AVANTS

No, my lawyers didn't tell me that. My lawyers told the -- jumped up and told the court that. Read the transcript.

ABC NEWS

So your lawyers said you shot a man in the head, Ben Chester White, who was already dead?

ERNEST AVANTS

Yeah.

ABC NEWS

Is that true?

ERNEST AVANTS

No, it's true he said it. But it ain't true that I done that.

ABC NEWS

(VO) It was a racially mixed jury that acquitted Avants. And while two jurors told us they felt he did murder Ben Chester White, they couldn't convict Avants on the evidence produced at his trial.

JAY LEHMAN, JUROR

There must have been some more evidence that wasn't presented. There must have been.

WILLIAM BELL, JUROR

The district attorney, he did a poor job.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Whether or not the DA botched the case may never be known because the Avants transcript remains missing. But his acquittal is amazing. If only for the evidence that he confessed to Special Agent Alan Kornblum.

ALAN KORNBLUM

I was shocked. I thought with that confession he would have been convicted.

ABC NEWS

(VO) But now, time may be running out for this suspected murderer.

(OC) 20/20 has made a discovery that could give new life to the case against Ernest Avants. We returned here to the scene of the crime and discovered a simple fact that's been overlooked for 33 years. The murder of Ben Chester White occurred on federal land, inside the boundaries of the Homochitto National Forest, making the crime a federal offense for which Ernest Avants could still indicted after all these years.

RON RYCHLAK

That's of crucial significance.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Professor Ron Rychlak is associate dean at the University of Mississippi Law School.

(OC) This actually means he could be charged again, tried again and potentially found guilty.

RON RYCHLAK

Charged, tried and found guilty.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Last fall in response to our original broadcast, the FBI opened a new investigation. And last week, armed FBI agents entered a trailer home in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi.

2ND VOICE

Get out.

ABC NEWS

They arrested 69-year-old Ernest Henry Avants for the murder of Ben Chester White, 34 years ago.

ABC NEWS

Mr. Avants? Mr. Avants?

2ND VOICE

Get her out of here or I'm going to blow her brains out. Get out! Leave him alone. Ain't you got any Christian in you?

GROUP OF PEOPLE

(In unison) No.

BRAD PIGOTT, US ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI

The federal grand jury returned a one count murder indictment against Mr. Avants this afternoon. I, for one, want to express, on behalf of our office, the gratitude to the diligence of the 20/20 program of ABC News.

ABC NEWS

US Attorney Brad Pigott says it's the first known federal prosecution of a civil rights murder case.

MAN

It's our -- it's our professional judgment that we have enough admissible evidence to justify today's grand jury indictment of Mr. Avants and to try him for murder.

ABC NEWS

(VO) Federal prosecutors may rely on records uncovered by 20/20. For example, a motive, we found, in the lost confession of James Lloyd Jones.

ACTOR

(Playing James Lloyd Jones) Fuller told me he had orders from higher up that the man had to go. The deal was that they thought maybe they might get old Martin Luther King.

RON RYCHLAK

It's chilling to read really, and they were trying to use this murder perhaps to lure Dr. Martin Luther King to that area and maybe make an attempt on his life.

ABC NEWS

(VO) At his arraignment in US district court, Ernest Avants pleaded not guilty. As he was led away in hand-cuffs and leg irons, he appeared somewhat unsteady. He did not respond to reporters' questions. But when we first interviewed him before he was aware he could face another trial, Avants made it quite clear that he knows times have changed since 1967.

ERNEST AVANTS

You just think if had a trial then and got acquitted, if I was tried now.

ABC NEWS

What would happen?

ERNEST AVANTS

Hell, I'd be convicted.

ABC NEWS

Why do you say that?

ERNEST AVANTS

The -- the majority of white people is so sympathetic.

ABC NEWS

Back then, white people probably would not convict a white person for killing a black man.

ERNEST AVANTS

Like they will now.

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