A federal judge yesterday sentenced civil rights leader Spiver Gordon to six months in prison for his vote fraud conviction in the handling of absentee ballots for rural blacks in Greene County during Democratic primaries last year.

U.S. District Court Judge E.B. Haltom Jr. sentenced Gordon, a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to three years in prison, suspending all but six months of the term. He also fined Gordon $1,000 and ordered him to spend 500 hours in community service work. Gordon, 46, is free pending his appeal.

He was convicted last month by an all-white jury in Tuscaloosa on two counts of mail fraud and two counts of providing false information to an election official. The maximum penalty on each count was five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Gordon, who is a Eutaw city councilman and president of the SCLC's Greene County chapter, was acquitted on 14 other vote fraud counts. On three other counts, the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Gordon was one of eight indicted in a Justice Department investigation of absentee voting practices in five mostly black counties of Alabama -- an investigation that some blacks branded a "witch hunt."

Federal prosecutors denied race was a factor. Most of the charges accused defendants of casting absentee ballots for elderly or poorly educated blacks without permission.