Connie Chung may not be anybody's idea of the world's toughest investigative reporter, but she does a good job tracking down alleged killers tonight on ABC's "20/20 Monday," airing at 8, prior to football, on Channel 7.
As if to attest to her professional credibility, Chung and her crew are approaching the door of one suspect when we hear a surly-sounding voice growl, "Connie Chung? Go away!"
In a report that takes up virtually the entire show, Chung and her producer look into several vicious, racially motivated murders in the Deep South dating back to the '60s--all of which have gone suspiciously unprosecuted or had trials that ended in hung juries. In more than one case, evidence indicates that members of the Ku Klux Klan sat on the juries, served in the police departments or intimidated district attorneys when the crimes were being investigated--and "investigated" is sometimes too strong a term.
Examining several such killings, the "20/20" team came up with new information that could result in at least one case being reopened, Chung reports tonight. Ben Chester White, an African American man, was found brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1966; one year later, a white man named Ernest Avants was acquitted of the crime, even though evidence and the confession of another man pointed to Avants as one of three involved in the murder.
Having been acquitted, Avants cannot be tried again in the same court for the murder. But it turns out the killing was committed on federal land--within the boundaries of Homochitto National Forest--thus making it possible to prosecute Avants now for violation of federal law. According to Chung, this logistical detail had been ignored until she and "20/20" started productively nosing around.
Thus the program not only looks at murders for whom no one has even been held accountable, but also holds out the possibility that justice might at last be done after years and years of delay, as it apparently was in the Medgar Evers case.
Suspects--or potential suspects--who speak to Chung on camera seem unrepentant and/or belligerent about the crimes. Two of them use the N-word in referring to African Americans. One preaches a rather pathetic gospel of white supremacy: "A white man has run this United States. That's why it's great like it is." He also complains about the fact that one of the FBI investigators assigned to the case was "a Jew."
One man tells Chung that since being acquitted of a racially motivated murder, he has been blissfully living "the American dream."
The case histories are riddled with such irregularities as files that have mysteriously vanished over the years. The two men charged in the same murder as Avants were allowed by the judge simply to walk away from court because they claimed that ulcers and arthritis made it impossible for them to endure a possibly lengthy murder trial.
Most of the victims had the great misfortune to live in Klan-dominated communities of the sick Old South; their heirs cling to the hope of closure, that the killers will be found, convicted and punished for the monstrous things they did.
If racism is in fact a form of psychosis, and racists are mentally ill, does that mean the perpetrators should be treated as victims themselves?
Looking into their faces, however sad and miserable they may appear, one would have to respond with a resounding "No."
Chung marches into trailer parks and government buildings as she reports the story--occasionally in surroundings creepier than those in "The Blair Witch Project." Her narration was not written with any particular eloquence, or perhaps with enough appreciation for the wider social resonance of the tragic stories being reported, but she gets the job done in her usual crisp, no-nonsense style. And, clearly, it's a job worth doing.