1968 Wanted Poster via FBI/Wikimedia Commons
James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., never actually stood trial. He was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport of all places, and extradited to Tennessee. There, he pled guilty—something he agreed to do to avoid execution by electric chair—and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He maintained his innocence until his death 30 years later. He said he was the patsy of a mysterious figure named Raoul.
But of course the old saw about convicts is that they all claim they are innocent. Convicted assassins of civil rights leaders have an exceptionally tough path ahead of them in this regard; even if they get sprung from the pen on a technicality, they'll still be seen as monsters in the eyes of the public. In other words, James Earl Ray's attempts to clear his own name aren't surprising. What's surprising is that the victim's family members briefly devoted their lives to his cause.
From 1997 until 2000, the Kings, particularly Coretta, Martin Luther King's widow, and his youngest son Dexter, allied themselves with the legal team hell bent on freeing Ray. They were utterly sold on the most daring claim made by any of the King conspiracy theorists: not just that Ray hadn't acted alone, but that he wasn't even involved.
That was the version being sold at the time by Ray's lawyer, Bill Pepper. Pepper, who has in recent years devoted himself to the 9/11 truther movement, published a book in 1995 called Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King. Pepper's wasn't the first published work on the topic, but it was the most sympathetic to Ray.
According to Orders, US military intelligence and CIA agents teamed up with the mafia, renegade Memphis police officers, and of course J. Edgar Hoover's FBI (who, by any objective standard, really did want Martin Luther King dead), because they believed King's ideas were too revolutionary. Together, according to Pepper, they assembled a crack team of Special Forces snipers, plus a civilian shooter named Raoul Pereira, and cleared the way for King to be neutralized in Memphis on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel.
Unfortunately, the book explains, Pereira's trigger finger was too itchy, and he fired early. In the ensuing chaos, the supposed execution squad failed to take out its secondary target, the esteemed Reverend and later, Congressman, Andrew Young.
Pepper's book named names as well. For instance, he claimed to have received testimony from professed members of the Special Forces team which had led him to believe that one would-be trigger man had been a retired Green Beret named Billy Ray Eidson. Eidson had later been killed in New Orleans as part of a cover-up, according to the book.
By Pepper's own account in a later book, Martin Luther King's son Dexter became fascinated by this version of the assassination plot in early 1997. Over the previous two years, Dexter had taken over for his aging mother Coretta as leader of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. At the time, he promised a new era of "economic empowerment," for the black community, but he also advocated for the economic empowerment of King's estate.
At the start of his tenure as the King Family spokesman, Dexter King had clued into the profitability of Malcolm X's image, and met with representatives of the Elvis Presley Estate in Memphis to brainstorm ways to derive revenue from the work and likeness of his father. In 1997, he also negotiated a movie deal with Oliver Stone, and worked out a publishing arrangement with Time Warner to turn King's speeches and writings into marketable books and audiobooks like A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
While making those deals in 1997, according to Bill Pepper, Dexter King was also taking an interest in assassination conspiracy theories, as were his sister Yolanda, and his cousin Isaac Ferris. Pepper wrote in his 2003 book An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King that he was invited to Ferris's house on February 4, 1997, and that from 7:30 PM until 4 AM the following morning, he explained to them the investigative work he had done for Orders to Kill.
"They were astounded at the results and the meeting was highly emotional. It was clear that they had already decided to help," Pepper wrote. The help Pepper was looking for was in pushing for a new trial for his client James Earl Ray.
Nine days later, on February 13, the King family, including Coretta, held a press conference and announced that they supported a new trial for Ray, a move that, according to Coretta Scott King's biography by Laura T. McCarty, would have introduced new evidence, and helped clear up a lingering mystery. Dexter King took it a step further.
On March 27, Dexter King, whose appearance and voice are eerily similar to his father's, visited James Earl Ray in prison with the help of Bill Pepper. King told Ray he was glad to meet him, and shook his hand. They had a short conversation culminating in the point-blank question, "Did you kill my father?"
"No, no, I didn't, no. But like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer, and you have to make a personal evaluation," said Ray, according to the New York Times.
Other figures in the civil rights world were taken aback by the Kings' embrace of a convicted killer. "I simply don't understand it," former Martin Luther King aide Samuel Billy Kyles told the Associated Press. Another former aide named Julian Bond said he was "mystified," adding "I'm open to the argument that others were involved, but to say Ray wasn't involved is impossible to me."
Ray's health was failing, however, and freeing him could not remain the center of their effort. When he died in 1998, the possibility of a new trial was taken off the table. The efforts of Pepper and the Kings had to refocus on clearing Ray's name.
Four years earlier, Loyd Jowers, owner of a restaurant next to the Lorraine Motel called Jim's Grill, had gone on television with his own conspiracy theory—one that included himself. He claimed to have hired a gunman at the behest of Frank Liberto who, at the time, sold him vegetables. Liberto had ostensibly been the one with the mob ties, that Pepper wrote about. Jowers said the unnamed man he hired, a renegade Memphis cop was King's assassin, not James Earl Ray.
So in 1997, as Pepper sought to examine old evidence in pursuit of a new trial that would have heavily featured Jowers, police questioned Jowers about the aspects of his old claims that could be substantiated. Jowers had claimed that James Earl Ray's rifle was a dummy, and that he concealed the real murder weapon.
When questioned about the real murder weapon, Jowers recanted, calling his testimony about the second rifle "bullshit."
After Ray's death, Pepper and the King family turned their attention to Jowers, now a 71-year-old with lung cancer, who had begun to take the fifth when asked about King assassination conspiracies. He would occasionally acknowledge that he played a minor role in the killing of Martin Luther King, but would no longer go into detail.
The King family and Pepper filed a wrongful death suit against Jowers, but he never appeared in court, citing his failing health. Getting out of bed to face questions about his role in an assassination may not have seemed worthwhile, since the Kings were only seeking $100 in damages.
The ensuing trial, referred to by the King Center as "The Assassination Conspiracy Trial," was just under a month long. While Jowers did not appear, Andrew Young did, along with TV's Judge Joe Brown. Transcripts of the trial show that much of the testimony focused on the FBI's operations, and the extent to which they targeted Martin Luther King. Witnesses also testified that Ray was not a racist. Civil rights leader James Lawson said in court that when he visited Ray in prison, "I could not discern that he was a racist any more than the rest of us are racists."
This view of Ray flies wildly in the face of accepted wisdom about James Earl Ray—mainly that he was a drifter, a career criminal, and a huge racist. Records show that he appeared to support the presidential ambitions of the segregationist candidate George Wallace. Author Hampton Sides—enemy of conspiracy theorists everywhere—is of the opinion that Ray was in Europe when he was arrested because it was a stop on the way to segregated Rhodesia—now known as Zimbabwe—where he would have been admired by white Rhodesians who loathed Martin Luther King. Another fan of Rhodesia under white rule is alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, who sported a Rhodesian flag patch in a famous photo.
In any case, the jury in the civil trial delivered a verdict saying that Jowers was involved in some sort of conspiracy, and thus liable. The rest of the jury's finding was given as a blanket answer to a very long sequence of questions. It's worth reading the entire transcript of that question from the judge:
Judge: "Do you also find that others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant? Your answer to that one is also yes. And the total amount of damages you find for the plaintiffs entitled to is $100. Is that your verdict?"
Jury: (in unison) "Yes"
The Kings were elated. "We finally got what we had been asking for: The opportunity to get evidence before a jury," Dexter King told the press. Coretta Scott King invoked her husband's words, saying, "My husband once said that the moral arch (sic) of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Today I feel that the jurors' verdict clearly affirms this principle."
The civil court ruling prompted an 18 month inquiry from the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Janet Reno. That inquiry found no evidence of a conspiracy at all. "The verdict presented by the parties and adopted by the jury is incompatible with the weight of all relevant information, much of which the jury never heard," their report from June of 2000 says. That finding, unsurprisingly, doesn't impress conspiracy theorists much.
Three months later, there was another civil ruling with relevance to the King case. Billy Ray Eidson, whom Pepper's 1995 book had accused of involvement in King's death, turned out to be alive, and unhappy that a book was calling him a murderer. He sued Pepper for libel, and in October of 2000, a judge awarded him $11 million in damages.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.