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Ernest H. Avants, indicted on charges of aiding and abetting the 1966 murder of Ben Chester White, 6-8-00 AP (file)

When Ernest Avants was acquitted of murdering a black sharecropper, in what allegedly was a failed plot to lure and assassinate Martin Luther King Jr., convictions for white-on-black crimes were rare in Mississippi.

On Monday, about 36 years after Avants was found not guilty on state charges, Avants will step into a federal court that may have trouble finding jurors who don't already think he's guilty of the highly publicized crime.

Prosecutors say, Avants, James Jones and Claude Fuller lured 67-year-old Ben Chester White into the Homochitto National Forest near Natchez, in southwestern Mississippi, in 1966. They allege the three repeatedly shot White and dumped his body in a nearby creek, solely because he was black.

According to a statement by Jones to a sheriff, Fuller had said the killing was intended to "get old Martin Luther King" by luring the civil rights leader to Natchez. King, assassinated two years later in Memphis, Tenn., did not visit Natchez after White's murder.

A biracial jury acquitted Avants in 1967. Fuller, now dead, never went to trial, and the state's case against Jones, also deceased, ended in a mistrial.

Avants was indicted on federal charges of aiding and abetting the murder in 2000, after prosecutors realized federal charges could be filed because the killing took place in a national forest.

Jury selection alone could take two days of a trial that legal observers expect to last no longer than a week.

A challenge for both sides will be seating 12 jurors who either aren't familiar with the case or who won't prejudge in an effort to right the state's troubled civil rights past.

Prosecutors are expected to use statements Avants made in 1967 to FBI investigators looking into a separate case. He allegedly said he shot White only after Fuller "had already shot him with a carbine, had emptied the full magazine of 15 rounds into him ... I blew his head off with a shotgun."

CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen notes that federal authorities have been successful lately in prosecuting old crimes such as this one, but the trial nonetheless presents significant hurdles for the prosecution.

"Avants apparently confessed back in 1967, but even his confession wasn't enough to convict him," says Cohen. "So prosecutors are going to have to figure out a way to get some corroborating evidence."

"This is a classic case of prosecutors wanting to prove that you can't get away with murder, even if the murder took place in 1966," adds Cohen. "The best witnesses are dead, the accused is in his seventies, and has suffered a stroke."

Avants, who lives about 60 miles south of Jackson in Bogue Chitto, suffered a stroke last year. His lawyer has argued that the stroke made his client made him unable to stand trial, but a federal judge ruled Avants competent last month.

  • Francie Grace

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