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King Was Victim of Conspiracy, Jury Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than three decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a Memphis jury hearing a lawsuit brought by his wife and children found Wednesday that King was the victim not of a lone racist gunman but of a vast conspiracy.

The jury awarded the King family, which sought only a token sum, $100 in its wrongful death suit against Loyd Jowers, the ailing former owner of a Memphis restaurant who six years ago claimed that he hired King’s assassin as a favor to a Mafia friend. He never named the accused shooter.

James Earl Ray had confessed to the crime right after he was captured two months later in London, then recanted three days later. Increasingly skeptical that Ray, a seemingly hapless prison escapee from Missouri, had carried out the April 4, 1968, slaying on his own, the family fought unsuccessfully for a new trial for Ray before his death last year. The civil trial, they hoped, would point to a conspiracy and persuade prosecutors to reopen their investigation.

“I’m just so happy to see that the people have spoken,” King’s son Dexter said after the verdict.

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After 31 years, however, the trial seems unlikely to resolve the lingering questions over one of the nation’s most traumatic slayings. And though support for a trial for Ray seemed to be growing before his death, Memphis prosecutors have not appeared inclined to revisit the case.

No dramatic new testimony has come out during the trial, and the arguments revolved around a conspiracy theory that has shifted over the years. Jowers, 73, did not attend the three-week trial, and his attorney, Lewis Garrison, told the jury that while they might conclude there was evidence of a conspiracy, any role Jowers might have played was minor.

Ray’s conviction was upheld eight times. In 1979, the House Select Commission on Assassinations concluded that Ray shot King, but it also said there was circumstantial evidence suggesting he acted in concert with others. In 1998, Memphis authorities revisiting the case found no evidence that anyone except Ray killed King.

The jury, made up of six African Americans and six whites, found the argument of a broad conspiracy compelling enough to return a verdict in three hours.

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While unlikely to change many minds, at least in the short term, the trial was a victory for the King family and the crowning achievement for the most single-minded and controversial of King conspiracy theorists.

Attorney William Pepper has spent two decades pursuing the case and developing and redeveloping his theories. Though the 61-year-old represented Ray in his efforts to gain a new trial, he had never had the chance to present his scenario for King’s murder--a dark theory of interwoven conspiracies reaching from the halls of the Pentagon to the underbelly of New Orleans.

Juror David Morphy said he believed the assassination was too complex to be carried out by one person. “We all thought it was kind of a cut-and-dried case, with the evidence that Pepper brought forth that there were a lot of people involved, everyone from the CIA, military involvement in it--Jowers was involved in it, we felt,” Morphy told reporters.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was shot, said after the verdict: “I remain convinced that James Earl Ray was involved. However, he neither had the means, the money or the motivation to stalk Dr. King, kill him [and] get out of the country . . . .”

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Derided by prosecutors and police as a publicity seeker, Pepper argued before the jury and in a 1995 book that King was slain by a confederacy of FBI agents, CIA agents, cops, mobsters and others who were worried about his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam and his plans for a massive march on Washington.

The order to kill King, Pepper said, actually came from a New Orleans mob boss produce dealer, who in turn enlisted Jowers to find a shooter and a gun.

From early on, Pepper maintains, the plot was orchestrated to focus suspicion on Ray, who, using an assumed name, had rented a room in the flophouse above Jowers’ restaurant.

Ray did not fire the fatal shot from the bathroom window of his room, as prosecutors contended, Pepper argued. A Memphis police sharpshooter, hidden in the brush across the street, felled King as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel, he said.

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In 1968, witnesses told police they had seen a figure dressed in white near the bushes.

Two Army sniper units were in place around the hotel, Pepper has said, awaiting the order to fire in case the primary sniper missed.

In 1993, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that the military had frequently spied on King and that on the day of his death, an eight-man team of Army Green Berets was in town. The Army defended its spying on King, saying the civil protests of the era had grown too numerous for the FBI to handle.

In 1997, N.E. Zachary, the retired chief homicide detective who investigated the slaying, told The Times that Pepper was “the biggest liar that ever hit the ground. He’ll say anything in the world for a little notoriety.”

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Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.


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