After 25 years, the confessed killer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won a judge's permission Friday to call witnesses and present evidence in court to try to prove his innocence.
James Earl Ray has been trying unsuccessfully to take back his guilty plea and go to trial since shortly after he confessed in 1969 to murdering the civil rights leader on April 4, 1968.
Criminal Court Judge Joseph Brown rejected Ray's latest plea for a trial but agreed to let his lawyers question witnesses and present other courtroom evidence to prepare an appeal of that rejection.
"What's it been going on? A quarter of a century so far? A few more months won't hurt one way or the other," Brown said. "Let the historical record be cleared up."
Such a process will not overturn Ray's conviction or free him from prison, where he is serving a 99-year sentence. But it will give him his first chance since his guilty plea to compel witnesses to testify and to have that testimony under oath.
Brown said he hopes to help clear up questions, including claims of a conspiracy, that have festered since King was shot and killed while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The U.S. House Committee on Assassinations looked into King's murder and concluded in 1978 that Ray was the killer but may have been helped by others. The committee's records are sealed until the year 2029.
Brown said he was bound by state law to uphold Ray's conviction and reject his plea for a trial. There was no evidence that Ray's confession was other than freely given, the judge said.
Defense lawyer William Pepper said he planned to call up to 40 witnesses but doubted that Ray would be one of them.
Ray, 66, contends he was duped into taking part in the assassination. He has argued that he was set up by a shadowy figure he knew only as Raoul. He admitted buying the weapon that authorities identify as the one used to kill King, but says he bought it for Raoul.
Prosecutor John Pierotti said his investigators have found no evidence to support Ray's claim of new evidence proving his innocence.