Thursday, 27 February 1997 18:35

James Earl Ray Hospitalized Before Upcoming Hearing

Lisa Pease looks back over the vicissitudes in the story of Ray's convinction, incarceration and requests for retrial.

From the January-February, 1997 issue (Vol. 4 No. 2) of Probe


The weekend before Christmas, James Earl Ray, the convicted, yet disputed, assassin of Martin Luther King, was transferred from the Riverbend State Prison in Nashville, Tenn. to the Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital. By Christmas Eve, Ray had slipped into a coma.

Ray, 68, has been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure, which led to internal bleeding. Cirrhosis is most commonly associated with an abuse of alcohol (Click on this link for an explanation).

Ray wasn't a drinker or a smoker.

"I think he'll be gone in 24 hours. I really do," said his brother Jerry. Ray's brother, on Christmas Eve, signed a request that Ray not be given life-support if his condition should become critical. But on Christmas Day, Jerry changed his mind, attributing the change to calls from both Reverend James Lawson and William Pepper, Esq.

Reverend Lawson, now a Los Angeles pastor, was a supporter of Martin Luther King's who was in Memphis during 1968. Lawson has been vocal in his defense of Ray over the years, claiming Ray could not have been a lone assassin, if an assassin at all.

William Pepper has become Ray's lawyer. Pepper recently wrote a book detailing his own long study of the King assassination case, called Orders To Kill. The book details Pepper's own search for the truth about King's death, and concludes that Ray could not have been the one responsible. The finger of guilt is pointed instead toward an alliance between forces in the government and elements of organized crime. Both Lawson and Pepper convinced Jerry that he should make every effort to keep his brother alive, especially in light of an upcoming hearing.

For years, since the time of his confession, which he retracted a few days later, Ray has professed his innocence and filed barrages of appeals to get a new trial. Finally, in 1994, it seemed he might have a chance.

During the course of preparing a mock trial for an HBO telecast, much new evidence surfaced in the MLK case. The evidence was enough to frighten one person into coming forward to confess what he claimed was a small role he had played. Lloyd Jowers, who worked in the grill below the rooming house from which King was allegedly shot, confessed on TV in December of 1993 that he had been hired to find an assassin for King, and that he had not hired James Earl Ray. Jowers wanted immunity before telling more of what he knew. But Shelby County District Attorney General John Pierotti called Jowers' story a hoax. According to Pepper, "Pierotti has had five witnesses under his nose...and he's never even tried to talk to them to get their story." Both Lawson and Pepper complained publicly that Pierotti had done little to investigate the case.

In January of 1994, New York City attorney Jack E. Robinson, having done his own five-year investigation into the Martin Luther King assassination, went public with his findings. He had reviewed the House Select Committee records and found their investigation "very disturbing. The House investigation was sloppy and incomplete, and its findings misleading. James Earl Ray, in my view, is innocent."

Former HSCA Chairman Walter E. Fauntroy agreed. Referring to the HSCA's conclusions that although there was likely a conspiracy in the MLK case, Ray was still a shooter, Fauntroy said, "both research by very competent people on the one hand and my review of my own basic data for that investigation have convinced me that we were in error on the second matter, namely that James Earl Ray, in fact, shot Dr. Martin Luther King. That, in my view, is not true."

Although denied parole in May of 1994 at his first hearing in 25 years, by June Ray had cause to hope. Pepper had managed to convince Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joseph Brown, Jr. to allow a test firing of the alleged assassination rifle to see if the rifle could have fired the bullet that struck MLK. Brown had ruled in April that under state law, there was no way that a defendant could benefit from new evidence long after having been convicted of a crime. Nonetheless, the Judge recognized the historical importance and unanswered questions surrounding the case, and said he would allow Ray's attorneys to "get it all out on the record" so that an appeals court might be able to later consider the new evidence.

However, Pierotti got the Judge to delay the tests, saying he wanted experts of his own choosing present at the test-firing, which had been set for June 16, 1994. Pepper also wanted to conduct neutron activation tests on the rifle, but Pierotti claimed that FBI experts had said such tests were only useful with recently fired bullets. The day before the test firing was to take place, a state appeals court halted the proceedings, granting Pierotti's request for a delay of the firing. It seemed the last chance to get at the truth was slipping away.

In 1995, Ray filed a FOIA for classified papers that he claimed would clear him of participation in the assassination. Officials denied his request priority treatment, claiming his case had not generated "widespread and exceptional" media interest. "The politicians have a vested interest in keeping me in prison," Ray said at the time. "For instance, if I were out, I could personally appear in Federal Court petitioning for the release of the classified Martin Luther King records." In response to questions of his own involvement in the shooting, Ray responded,

What I say is not worth two cents...What I'm trying to do is get these classified records released and let them make a judgment based on the records. I've testified to everything I know about the case. The prosecution presented certain versions of the case but they've kept the rest under seal.

Undaunted, Pepper and the rest of Ray's defense team have stuck by him. In fact, there is a hearing scheduled for February 20th of this year, in which Judge Brown will again be petitioned for permission to test the murder weapon. This time, according to Jerry, "they're going to have Court TV down there. There is going to be too much pressure on [Pierotti] not to give him a trial, because when it comes out, that the gun wasn't the one that was used to kill King, then they'll know James was a setup as the fall guy."

Ray has come near death, just two months before this was to take place. Andrew Hall, one of Ray's lawyers, told the press he had sued the state claiming prison officials refused to treat Ray for stomach troubles last summer. "He's been asking for treatment for a year," Hall lamented. "They've been refusing to give treatment or a diagnosis to see what is wrong."

Ray did come out of the coma the day after Christmas, but his health is still tenuous. For those looking for a deathbed confession, Jerry offered this:

Let me tell you, anybody out there believes James did do it and going to give a death-bed confession, I hope they don't hold their breath because if he wanted to confess to something he didn't do, they offered to turn him loose in 1968 [presumably 1978]. House Assassinations Committee, Congress, and I was present when...Representative Sawyer and Stokes made the offer right in front of me and Mark Lane that they would turn him loose if he would confess to murder. He said he wouldn't confess to anything he didn't do....Same thing at the parole board....He told them he didn't even want to go in front of the parole board. Because, he said, I'm not guilty. He said a parole would mean I am guilty. He don't want no pardon, no parole, the only thing he wants is a trial to prove he didn't kill King."

As we start this New Year, we hope that Ray lives long enough for this hearing to happen. "If he dies before February 20th, then the hearing is off," Jerry told the press. We all deserve to learn the truth about this case—and no one more than Ray himself.

- Lisa Pease

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