The judge later barred the public from the examination of potential jurors. None was seated Monday; one person was excused after expressing doubts that an acquittal was possible even if the government failed to prove guilt.
It is the second trial for 72-year-old Ernest Avants, who was acquitted of killing Ben Chester White in 1967, when convictions for white-on-black crimes were rare in Mississippi. Avants was indicted again in 2000 when prosecutors realized they could press federal charges because the killing took place in a national forest.
Now the defense faces the challenge of finding jurors who don't already think Avants is guilty of the highly publicized crime.
"It's very hard to defend a case when it gets this old, particularly when there is sort of an evolving consensus that the defendant is guilty," said Ronald Rychlak, associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. and attorneys for both sides urged potential jurors Monday to be honest about their feelings with regard to race.
"We need to ask you about your heart," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Lacy said.
Defense attorney Tom Royals asked jurors repeatedly whether they would be influenced by testimony that Avants was a member of the Ku Klux Klan who freely used racial epithets.
Prosecutors say Avants and two other men lured White, who was 67 at the time, into the Homochitto National Forest where they repeatedly shot him solely because he was black.
Statements by the other two men, both of whom have since died, indicated that they hoped to "get old Martin Luther King" by luring him to the town of Natchez with White's killing. King never visited Natchez, and was assassinated two years later in Memphis, Tenn.
Claude Fuller never went to trial; the state's case against James Jones ended in a mistrial.