Ben Chester White

Background

On June 10, 1966, three Klansmen murdered Ben Chester White near Pretty Creek in the Homochitto National Forest in Natchez, Mississippi.  White was 67. The gunman drove to White’s house and asked him to help them find a lost dog.  They drove to a remote spot in the Homochitto National Forest.  According to testimony at trial, one of the three men, Claude Fuller, took out a rifle and opened fire on White.  Just before his death White yelled out, “Oh, Lord, what have I done to deserve this?”

The FBI suggests that White was murdered to stimulate public outcry to induce Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Natchez, Mississippi, thus making it easier to assassinate him. King did not go to Natchez after this murder.

Legal Status

Local police did not begin to investigate White’s murder until details regarding his murder arose in connection with an unexplained car fire.  Police believed the car was same car that drove White to the bridge where he was killed.  Eventually the car’s owner, James Lloyd Jones, admitted his part in the crime.  He later denied giving the confession.

Jones confessed and implicated two others – Claude Fuller and Ernest Avants.  The three men were charged in state court for White’s murder.   The men were charged under state law.   The Jones case ended in a mistrial.  Claude Fuller was never tried, allegedly due to illness.  The third suspect, Ernest Avants, went to trial in 1967.  Despite making incriminating statements to the FBI, Avants was acquitted on the state murder charge.

In 2000, the United States initiated a federal murder prosecution against Avants when it became clear there was federal jurisdiction because White was murdered on federal government land.  In June 2000, a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Mississippi indicted Avants for aiding and abetting White’s murder within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111 and 1112.

During pre-trial proceedings, Avants moved to suppress his 1967statements to the FBI.  He argued that the statements were taken in violation of his right to counsel because he had retained an attorney in connection with the state murder charge, and the attorney was not present for the FBI interview.  In September 2000, the district court granted Avants’s motion to suppress.  On appeal, the government contended that the district court erred because Avants’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was offense-specific, and the federal and state murder charges did not constitute the “same offense.”  Thus, the government argued that Avants’s right to counsel had attached only to the state murder prosecution at the time of the 1967 interview and not to later federal prosecution.  In January 2002, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for trial.  In 2003, Avants was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.  A later appeal on the merits was unsuccessful.  Avants died in 2004 in prison at the age of 72.