JACKSON, Miss. (AP) â€” A white man acquitted of the 1966 killing of a black farm worker pleaded innocent Thursday to new murder charges brought by federal prosecutors.
Clothed in the same tattered overalls he wore when arrested Wednesday, Ernest H. Avants, 69, appeared before a federal magistrate and was ordered held on $100,000 bond.
Prosecutors claim Avants took part in the killing of 67-year-old farm worker Ben Chester White and say it might have been part of a plot to lure the Rev. Martin Luther King to the area so he could be assassinated.
Avants was acquitted in a Mississippi court in 1967. Federal prosecutors, who claimed jurisdiction after learning that the slaying took place in the Homochitto National Forest, said the jury in that trial was never informed that Avants had confessed.
During Thursday's hearing, U.S. Magistrate Jim Sumner set trial for Aug. 7 in federal court in Jackson. Avants was returned to the custody of federal marshals following the brief hearing. Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek the death penalty.
Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said Avants' indictment is proof the crimes of the civil rights era haven't been forgotten.
``Bringing it up doesn't cause more pain, it brings closure to a very painful era,'' Dees said. ``It gives some type of closure to the families involved, to Mr. White's family and to the black people who have suffered through this grave injustice.''
Avants has maintained his innocence. Two other men accused along with him, James Jones and Claude Fuller, have died. Jones confessed, but a mistrial was declared in his case. Fuller was never tried.
The case was reopened in November after the ABC News program ''20/20'' reported that White's murder took place on federal property.
On the Net: Civil rights era links: http://www.bamaed.ua.edu/cse489/crproject/links.htm