Controversy Over King's Assassin

The sheets are turned back, and a newspaper is tossed casually across the bed. Plates and glasses, the remains of a hasty meal, are piled to one side. Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on the south side of Memphis, Tenn.
The sheets are turned back, and a newspaper is tossed casually across the bed. Plates and glasses, the remains of a hasty meal, are piled to one side. Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on the south side of Memphis, Tenn.

Controversy Over King's Assassin

The sheets are turned back, and a newspaper is tossed casually across the bed. Plates and glasses, the remains of a hasty meal, are piled to one side. Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on the south side of Memphis, Tenn., is just as it was on April 4, 1968, when its occupant strolled onto the balcony to speak to associates in the parking lot below. At 6:01 p.m., a bullet fired from across Mulberry Street struck him in the jaw and passed through his neck. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., black America's most celebrated champion, was fatally wounded. The Lorraine is now a museum dedicated to the struggle for civil rights, and Room 306 is the last stop on the pilgrimage. It is preserved behind a glass wall, through which visitors are invited to gaze at the spot on the balcony where King fell. If you look carefully, say the guides, you can still see a faint stain where his blood flowed. And sure enough, with a little imagination, you can.

The stain lingers - and so, 29 years later, does the question: who killed Martin Luther King? The answer once seemed clear-cut. James Earl Ray - petty criminal, drifter and open racist - confessed to shooting King and was sentenced without a trial in March, 1969, to 99 years in prison. End of story, it would seem, but the King case just will not go away. It drags on in a Memphis courtroom barely two kilometres north of the Lorraine Motel, where lawyers acting on behalf of Ray are still doggedly trying to prove his innocence. And it lingers for King's own family, which in a bizarre twist has lent its considerable moral weight to Ray's long-standing demand for a trial. The family says it does not believe Ray shot King, and wants to see all the facts brought out "in the name of truth and justice" before he dies of the terminal liver disease now afflicting him at age 69. But even that has brought the Kings no peace. Instead, their uneasy alliance with the convicted killer has led their critics to accuse them of betraying King's political legacy - even profiting from it through a movie to be produced by conspiracy specialist Oliver Stone on the civil rights leader's life and death.

The original evidence against Ray seemed convincing. In a rooming house across the street from the motel, police found a rifle he had bought and a radio with his onetime prison number etched on the side. His fingerprints were found near the bathroom window from which police said the shot was fired. When he was captured in London two months later, after fleeing through several states, Canada and Portugal, he admitted he had been in Memphis on April 4 and confessed to the crime. But the doubts began almost as soon as Ray pleaded guilty. Three days later, he said he had been coerced by his lawyers and asked for a trial. He said he had been set up by a mysterious figure called "Raoul," whom he met in a motel in Montreal in 1967. Raoul told him to buy the rifle, he said, and someone else fired the fatal shot. Few took him seriously. Seven times since then, courts have denied him a trial. A two-year Congressional investigation concluded in 1978 that Ray was indeed the killer.

The fact that the case is still alive at all is due to the efforts of a little-known lawyer named William Pepper, whose own story has more than its share of unusual turns. In the mid-1960s, New York City-born Pepper was a left-wing activist who briefly worked with King. Now 60, and calling himself "Dr. Pepper," he works mainly in London practising international law, but has succeeded in breathing new life into Ray's cause. Pepper started investigating the assassination in 1977, and in 1995 published a book, Orders to Kill, in which he argued that King was the victim of an elaborate plot involving the Mafia, the FBI, the CIA, military intelligence - and the highest levels of the U.S. government. Ray, he says, was an unwitting dupe lured by a promise of money: "James was a patsy. He was moved around and set up as the fall guy."

Pepper and others who reject the lone-gunman theory of the King murder point to evidence they say has long been overlooked. At least two eyewitnesses, he says, saw a man in the bushes below the rooming house window and saw a puff of smoke from there at the time the fatal shot was fired. Raoul, he adds, was not a figment of Ray's imagination but a real person who had ties to the mob and the CIA and still lives in the New York area. More importantly, claims Pepper, the courts and Congress never fully looked into the web of connections between Ray and his family and a group of racist businessmen who wanted King dead and called on mob contacts in St. Louis and New Orleans to get the job done. In 1993, a café owner named Lloyd Jowers claimed he was paid $100,000 to allow an unidentified gunman access to his grill across the street from the Lorraine on the day of the murder. Jowers, says Pepper, is now "in hiding. He's frightened to death."

Even Congressional investigators agreed that Ray probably did not act alone. There may well have been a conspiracy involving his brothers, Jerry and John, they concluded. But Pepper goes much further. He argues that King was a serious threat to national security because he had started speaking out against the Vietnam war. When he was killed, Pepper notes, King was planning a demonstration in Washington that would have brought together civil rights and antiwar protesters in a massive challenge to president Lyndon Johnson. "This was one of the most monumental killings in history," he says. "Do you think the decision would have been taken by a colonel or even a general? It had to come from the highest office in the land."

Pepper's book sank without a trace when it was published two years ago. He might have remained on the outer fringes of conspiracy theorists, but late last year he pulled off the coup that put his client's three-decade-old case back on the front pages. Pepper met with Dexter King, 36, the civil rights leader's younger son and effective leader of the family, and persuaded him that Ray is innocent. The Kings had long had their suspicions about the assassination. They knew the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover kept King under surveillance, tapped his phones and harassed him for much of the 1960s. Dexter and his mother, Coretta Scott King, travelled to Memphis in February to testify in favor of Ray's bid for a trial. And in March, Dexter King met face-to-face with Ray in a prison hospital in Nashville. "I just want to ask you for the record, did you kill my father?" King said. When Ray replied, "No, no, no, I didn't," King gave him a blanket exoneration: "I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you."

That gave Ray's case new impetus, and since then it has been grinding its way through the Memphis court. Ray's lawyers were fortunate enough to find a judge, Joseph Brown, who did not dismiss their arguments out of hand. He allowed them to conduct further test firings with the rifle that police say was used to murder Martin Luther King. In May, experts acting for Ray fired 18 bullets and compared them with the so-called "death slug" that killed King. The tests have so far been inconclusive - as were two other sets in 1968 and 1977. Pepper's hope is that new techniques for comparing spent bullets may finally exclude Ray's rifle as the murder weapon, and thus prove his innocence. Brown is to hold yet another hearing in late August to hear Ray's request for more tests. It is a slender reed on which to hang such a controversial case, but, says Pepper, "it's all we have to keep things going."

The fact that the case is alive at all frustrates John Campbell, the assistant district attorney general in charge of the case. "After 30 years, we're in the same position we always were," he says. "James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King - I have no hesitancy in saying that." Campbell has been fending off Pepper's legal manoeuvres for years and says it was a "real shock" when the King family lent their support to Ray. "They're turning [King's] legacy into a comic book," he says. "It's such a tragedy."

Others are even harsher. The King family, and Dexter King in particular, are targets of frequent criticism in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King was born and where he preached. They run the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which contains his crypt and has become a major pilgrimage site for Americans. The King Center has done little to carry forward his legacy of social action, claim the critics. Instead, Dexter King, its chairman and chief executive officer since 1995, has spent his time finding new ways to earn money for the King estate. He made two visits to Graceland to study the marketing of Elvis Presley, and struck a deal with an entertainment company run by a close friend of his to license King's name and speeches. He has enforced strict copyright controls over use of King texts like the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and worked out a multimillion-dollar joint venture with Time Warner Inc. for books and CD-ROMs. He signed a deal with Stone, director of the Kennedy-assassination conspiracy film JFK, for a movie about King. And he has plans for an ambitious interactive civil rights theme park on the site of the King Center. Inevitably, critics have dubbed the idea "I Have a Dreamland."

All that, however, pales beside the spectacle of Martin Luther King's own family embracing the man convicted of his murder. Ray's liver disease will kill him - probably within months, says Pepper. In all likelihood the questions surrounding him will not be answered by then, but the stain of the crime may still mark King's survivors.

Maclean's August 25, 1997