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King Assassin Ray Dies, Taking Truth to Grave

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

James Earl Ray, the small-time crook who confessed to killing civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., then recanted and won the support of King’s widow and children, died Thursday, effectively ending hope that the full truth about the assassination will ever be known.

Ray, whose health had been failing for years, knew he would die without a liver transplant, which lent renewed urgency to his quest for a trial. With no public airing of his case, his death at age 70 of liver and kidney disease in a Nashville hospital was deemed untimely by members of King’s family.

“We were deeply saddened by the death today of Mr. James Earl Ray,” King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, said in a statement. “This is a tragedy, not only for Mr. Ray and his family, but also for the entire nation. America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” and might have established facts “concerning Mr. Ray’s innocence.”

The April 4, 1968, assassination, in which a single bullet struck King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., shook the nation, sparked rioting in more than 100 cities and led to one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history, which ended two months later with Ray’s arrest at Heathrow Airport in London.

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At the time, he was traveling under the alias Ramon George Sneyd.

As with the death of President Kennedy and the subsequent arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the capture of Ray could not satisfy the national craving for answers, nor ease the gnawing paranoia about government conspiracies. Over the last few years, many came to view Ray as a pawn, a dupe, a patsy--at any rate, a man who couldn’t have acted alone in cutting down the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“The haunting question remains the extent to which our government was involved in the killing of Dr. King,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a statement released hours after Ray’s death.

But others contend Ray was a con man, motivated possibly by a reward posted by racists for anyone who would kill King.

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“I believe the history books will accurately record that James Earl Ray was the killer of Dr. King,” said William Gibbons, the lead state prosecutor in Memphis.

Ray pleaded guilty in March 1969, eluding the death penalty and receiving a 99-year prison sentence. Then, three days later, he changed his story, but his request for a trial was denied.

Undaunted, Ray continued his fight for nearly 30 years, aided by his brother, Jerry, and a team of conspiracy theory lawyers, notably William Pepper, who wrote a book supporting Ray’s claim that the mastermind of King’s death was a shadowy figure Ray knew only as “Raoul.”

“New evidence renders the state’s case a complete shambles,” Pepper said in an essay posted recently on the James Earl Ray site on the World Wide Web. “Truth and justice compel that the new evidence be testified under oath at a trial.”

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But many historians have scoffed at Pepper’s assertions, saying he blends fact and fantasy into one tasty, but fictitious, stew.

Ray Blames Lawyer for Guilty Plea

Ray explained his guilty plea by saying it was urged upon him by his first lawyer, Percy Foreman, who told Ray that he was already convicted in the court of public opinion. Foreman said, according to Ray, that any jury would consist of African Americans and “Chamber of Commerce” types anxious to avoid more unrest, and would undoubtedly convict him and send him to his death.

“I didn’t kill Dr. King,” Ray told a parole board in May 1994. “I wasn’t involved in any type of collusive activity.” But the denial failed to impress parole board members, who turned down his final plea for freedom.

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In his 1987 book, “Tennessee Waltz: The Making of a Political Prisoner,” Ray made his case to the public. He then tried to distance himself from his own book, claiming the publisher deliberately inserted errors into the text. The ensuing confusion seemed to dampen support for Ray--except among members of the King family.

In an extraordinary meeting, unprecedented in American political history, King’s youngest son, Dexter, met eye-to-eye with Ray last year.

“I just want to ask you, for the record, did you kill my father?” the son asked the frail and trembly Ray, as CNN cameras captured the moment.

“No, no, I didn’t, no,” Ray said. “But, like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer and you have to make a personal evaluation.”

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“Well,” Dexter King said, “as awkward as this may seem, I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you, and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail.”

It was a promise on which the King family made good, even on the day of Ray’s death.

In the statement released Thursday, Coretta Scott King renewed her recent call for President Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno “to conduct a full investigation of all new and unexamined evidence related to the assassination and to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would grant amnesty and immunity from prosecution for all those who come forward with information.”

Such an investigation was concluded only last month by the Memphis district attorney’s office, which found after four years of retracing leads, re-interviewing witnesses and reexamining evidence that Ray acted alone.

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Among King’s former colleagues and friends, a consensus has formed that FBI agents were behind the killing, a consensus bolstered by new information that gradually surfaced about J. Edgar Hoover’s deep animosity toward King.

“We know that J. Edgar Hoover had a passionate hatred for Dr. King,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, retired leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "[He] would have done anything to discredit if not kill Martin Luther King.”

Hosea Williams, a civil rights pioneer who was at the Lorraine Motel the day of the assassination, spoke on Ray’s behalf at the 1994 parole hearing. And the Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles, whose invitation brought King to Memphis, not only performed Ray’s wedding ceremony in prison in 1978, but started a fund to help pay for Ray’s defense.

He Says He Gave Rifle to ‘Raoul’

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Ray always acknowledged renting a room in the flophouse across from the Lorraine, the very flophouse from which authorities say the fatal shot was fired. He always admitted driving a white Mustang like the one seen leaving the scene after the shooting. He always admitted delivering a rifle, which authorites believe to be the murder weapon, to the mysterious “Raoul,” a gun dealer he said he met in Montreal.

Ray claimed Raoul told him to buy the Mustang and the rifle, and gave him thousands of dollars to do so. He claimed Raoul directed his movements across the United States and Canada in the months leading up to King’s assassination. But Raoul never surfaced, and his existence strained credulity.

What was Raoul’s last name? Ray told a reporter from Newsday in 1993 that he never bothered to ask. “I figured if he wanted me to know,” Ray said, “he’d tell me.”

(In its investigation, the Memphis district attorney’s office said Raoul did exist, but he had nothing to do with King’s assassination.)

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Failing to obtain a trial was but the last in a lifelong string of failures for Ray, a career criminal who showed no aptitude for his chosen profession. He botched the theft of a typewriter from a Los Angeles restaurant. He robbed a cabbie of $12 and then fled up a dead-end alley. He was caught stealing $120 from a St. Louis supermarket, in 1959, and sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary.

He managed to escape in April 1967, and he was still at large at the time of King’s assassination.

The closest Ray got to the trial he craved was his testimony before a congressional committee, which concluded in 1979 that “there is a likelihood that James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King as a result of a conspiracy.”

Though Ray spent his adulthood in a prison cell, his time did not pass quietly. He was beset by a series of tempests, including a 1981 attack in which he was stabbed 22 times.

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Anna Sandhu Ray, a courtroom artist, believed his avowals of innocence and married him in prison in 1978, but she divorced him 15 years later.

Leaders Held Out Hope for Confession

In 1996, when Ray’s death seemed imminent, some civil rights leaders held out hope for a deathbed confession. Ray’s brother, Jerry, told them “not to hold their breaths.”

“Members of the House Assassination Committee offered to get him released from prison if he would confess,” the brother growled. “If he wouldn’t do it then, he sure isn’t gonna do it now.”

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But there is no evidence that such an offer was ever made, and so the statement goes into the Ray record, subject to endless interpretation and eternal scrutiny--like Ray, its truth ultimately unknown.

Moehringer reported from Atlanta and Ramos from Los Angeles.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Evidence Against Ray

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In 1969, James Earl Ray confessed to killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then recanted three days later. He spent the last years of his life attempting to refute the evidence and gain a new trial:

THE EVIDENCE

His guilty plea: He pleaded guilty in 1969, avoiding the possibility of the death penalty, and the plea has been upheld in state and federal courts eight times.

RAY’S AMSWER

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Ray’s answer: He was coerced into making the plea.

*

THE EVIDENCE

His proximity to the crime: Ray, a fugitive from a Missouri prison, came to Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before the killing, and rented a motel room using an assumed name. Several hours before the murder, he used another assumed name to rent a room at a flophouse near the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying.

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RAY’S AMSWER

Ray’s answer: He was in Memphis to meet with a gunrunner named Raoul and rented rooms at his direction.

*

THE EVIDENCE

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The gun: Ray bought a .30-06 hunting rifle in Alabama and brought it to Memphis. It was found a few hundred feet from the murder scene with his fingerprints on it. It was the type of gun used to kill King, though ballistics tests were not conclusive. Authorities say the shot came from the flophouse where Ray was staying.

Ray’s answer: He brought the gun as part of Raoul’s gunrunning operation. He gave the rifle to Raoul at the rooming house shortly before the shooting and then went out to run some errands.

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THE EVIDENCE

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The radio: A small radio with Ray’s former inmate number from the Missouri prison was found with the rifle and a bundle authorities say he dropped while fleeing.

Ray’s answer: The rifle and other items were left outside the flophouse to frame him.

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THE EVIDENCE

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The witness: Another rooming house resident told police he saw Ray in a hallway seconds after the shooting.

Ray’s answer: The witness was too drunk to identify anyone.

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THE EVIDENCE

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Why he left: Ray fled Memphis after the shooting and wasn’t found until two months later, in England.

Ray’s answer: He fled in his white 1966 Ford Mustang when he tried to return to the rooming house but found police swarming into the area. He heard on the radio that police were looking for a man driving a white Mustang.

Source: Associated Press


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