Avants’ trial recalls part of painful past

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 24, 2003

A horrific scene in the Homochitto National Forest 37 years ago has led to a federal courthouse in Jackson. Jury selection began Monday in the murder trial of Ernest Avants, who with two accomplices allegedly lured Natchez resident Ben Chester White into the forest so many years ago and killed him &045; solely because he was black.

Avants, acquitted in 1967 at a time when it was difficult to get a conviction in cases of white-on-black crime, is on trial again for aiding and abetting the murder. Prosecutors realized they could bring the charges when they realized the killing took place in a national forest, on federal property.

Whether he was guilty or not, it’s likely Avants’ original jury was tainted by the racism of the past. On Monday, U.S. District Judge William Barbour carefully instructed members of the jury pool to examine their hearts to consider whether they have any prejudice as they enter the proceedings.

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In 2003, that prejudice might not be the racism of the past; it might be the understandable desire to put such days behind us and bring some measure of vindication to Mississippi.

Ernest Avants should not be convicted simply so that Mississippi can feel better about the racial sins of the past. Ernest Avants should be convicted if he is indeed guilty of this heinous crime. Ben Chester White was shot three times, and his body was dumped in the forest in what prosecutors allege was a botched attempt to lure Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez so that he, too, could be killed.

But that doesn’t mean we all don’t have a chance, with the memories that surface with this trial, to bring about more healing from that painful period in Mississippi’s, and Natchez’s, history.