The Consortium

James Earl Ray Seeks Assassination Trial

By Sam Parry

On April 4, 1968, as he leaned over the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally struck by a single bullet. In the days that followed, riots exploded in cities across the country, and America's fabric, already worn thin by racial strife and anti-war dissent, threatened to tear apart.

Two months later, on June 8, an ex-convict named James Earl Ray was detained in London's Heathrow Airport by officials from Scotland Yard for carrying an illegal firearm. Ray was soon extradited to stand trial in the United States as the lone assassin in Dr. King's murder.

After eight months in jail, Ray pleaded guilty on March 10, 1969. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. But three days later, Ray wrote a letter to the court asking that his plea be set aside. He claimed he was innocent and had been misled by his lawyer. The judge refused. The case was closed.

But in the 27 years since then, doubts have persisted about the murder of America's pre-eminent civil rights leader. Ray has insisted that he was lured into a set-up by a mysterious operative whom he knew only as Raul. Government investigators, however, denied Raul's existence and claimed that Ray was just spinning tales to escape his long prison term. Yet, there were problems with the prosecution's case. Ray's guilty plea had spared those shortcoming from exposure at trial.

Skeptical investigators continue to doubt that Ray acted alone or that he was involved in the assassination at all. Why, they ask, did official investigators accept the word of Charles Stephens, the star witness, even when his accounts identifying Ray at the scene of the crime were disputed by other witnesses?

Wayne Chastain, a Memphis reporter, encountered Stephens after the shooting and asserts that Stephens was drunk. The next morning when Chastain returned, Stephens reportedly identified the assassin as an African-American. Yet, authorities still banked on Stephens as their chief eyewitness.

In 1971, investigative writer Harold Weisburg published the first dissenting account of the official King case in his book, Frame Up. Weisburg noted problems with the physical evidence, including the FBI's failure to match the death slug to the alleged murder weapon.

Other observers expressed shock when government records were declassified, revealing the intensity of the FBI's hatred for King in the months leading up to the assassination. Long detested by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, King stirred even stronger animosity in 1968 after he raised his voice against the Vietnam War and planned to lead a Poor People's March on Washington. Some saw the planned tent city on the Mall as a potential threat to domestic order.

A possible government motive to eliminate King and the nagging discrepancies led William F. Pepper, a lawyer and King friend, to seek answers despite the passage of time. Pepper agreed to represent Ray and filed a habeas corpus suit demanding an official hearing of the evidence. In 1993, a mock television trial of Ray -- during which the evidence was presented to a "jury" -- ended in the convict's "acquittal." Pepper asserts that the government's case is so weak that Ray would win a regular trial, too.

In his recent book, Orders to Kill, Pepper argues that the real conspirators include elements of the Mafia, the FBI and U.S. Army intelligence, who then framed Ray for the murder. Despite the passage of time, Pepper has located witnesses with new evidence. For instance, John McFerren, a black grocery owner, is quoted as saying that an hour before the assassination, he overheard a Mafia-connected businessman order someone over the phone to "shoot the son of a bitch when he comes on the balcony."

Though an attempt to solve such a long-ago murder might seem quixotic, Pepper has drawn the support of some admirers of Dr. King, including the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. and actor Mike Farrell. In a recent fundraising letter to support Ray's suit, Lawson and Farrell maintain that the killing of Dr. King so harmed the nation that the possibility of official involvement must be settled.

"Though it does raise the ugly specter of conspiracy, there are undeniably forces at large in our society ... who believe that their agenda is so important, so powerful, so right, that lives are disposable and truth an inconvenience," they wrote. "There are buried truths in our history which continue to insist themselves back into the light, perhaps because they hold within them the nearly dead embers of what we were once intended to be as a nation."

Ray's habeas corpus suit is expected to go to trial early this fall. It will seek to prove that James Earl Ray was not the killer of Martin Luther King Jr.

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