James Earl Ray
Convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.
1929 - 1998
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Two months later, police arrested James Earl Ray in England for the crime. He plead guilty to the charge in 1969 and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Shortly thereafter, Ray retracted his guilty plea and announced that he was merely a patsy in a much larger conspiracy. Some evidence of this conspiracy appeared in the 1990s, but Ray died before receiving a new trial.
James Earl Ray before the assassination
The details of Ray's early life are very unclear. He was raised in a very poor family who moved around a lot in search of work. By age fifteen, he was on his own, and on his eighteenth birthday he joined the Army.
While in the Army, he got his first taste of prison life: he was arrested by military police and sentenced to ninety days in the stockade after an episode of drinking and disorderly conduct. He left the Army in 1949 and drifted for a while, getting arrested for vagrancy on a few occasions. In late 1949, he served eight months in California for burglary, then followed that with two years in 1952 for armed robbery in Illinois.
In 1955, he broke his first federal law, stealing and forging money orders. He was sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. While there, he served his time quietly, even doing well enough to be approved for the Honor Farm, which was a special unit of the prison where convicts could work outside and have special privileges. However, an interesting note was made in his file when he left in 1958: He was approved for our Honor Farm but was never actually transferred to the farm due to the fact that he could not live in an Honor Farm dormitory, because they are integrated.
On October 10, 1959, James Earl Ray robbed a Kroger grocery store using a gun and was collared 20 minutes later. He was sentenced to twenty years at the Missouri State Penitentiary. While at the penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri, Ray served eight years behind bars. During these eight years, Ray attempted to escape several times, but managed to bungle his escape each time, once falling from the side of a wall and stunning himself, and another time from getting himself caught in a crawlspace with nowhere to go, eventually triggering an alarm so he wouldn't starve to death.
On April 23, 1967, Ray successfully escaped from the prison in Jefferson City. Due to his earlier bungled escape attempts, the warden and the guards spent several days combing the entire prison looking for Ray; when they realized Ray had actually managed to escape this time, they started a nationwide manhunt for him. But another stroke of "luck" fell Ray's way this time: the copies of his fingerprint card, which was distributed nationally to aid in seeking Ray, actually contained the wrong fingerprints.
Naturally, Ray laid low for most of the next year, until he would suddenly step onto the national stage.
Ray and King
What exactly went on in Memphis, Tennessee that April day is unknown, but what is known is this: on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King Jr. were both in Memphis, Tennessee. At 6:00 PM, Martin Luther King Jr. was strolling along a second story balcony of the Lorraine Hotel when he was shot once in the jaw. It was a fatal wound.
The Memphis police worked effectively at first, identifying the suspect as a well-dressed white male in a white Ford Mustang and having the murder weapon in hand within a half an hour of the shooting. But at that point, there was another odd twist: even though Arkansas was only 15 minutes from Memphis, and Mississippi less than an hour away, Memphis police did NOT issue an all-points bulletin in those two states.
The police did, however, track down a hotel reservation in Memphis for one Eric Starvo Galt, who matched the description and drove a white Mustang. When the Mustang turned up in Atlanta, the FBI used the fingerprints on the car and compared them to known felons, and matched the prints of "Galt" with James Earl Ray.
On June 8, 1968, police in Scotland Yard finally caught up with Ray in London, England, as he was about to board a plane bound for Brussels, Belgium.
After The Assassination
Ray was extradited to the United States and stood trial on March 10, 1969. Convinced that there was overwhelming evidence against him, and that a not guilty plea meant that the death penalty was assured, Ray entered a guilty plea. He was sentenced to 99 years. However, just two days after the trial, Ray renounced his plea and fired his lawyer, asking for a post-trial hearing in which he could reverse his plea. His request went all the way to the Supreme Court, but was denied. In essence, Ray never received a trial for the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ray maintained his innocence, and slowly pieces of evidence that he may not have committed the murder began to appear. The results of two polygraph tests, both of which include Ray making the claim that he killed King, showed that Ray was lying. In 1993, things really fired up when Lloyd Jowers, the former owner of Jim's Grill (a restaurant overlooking the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis), claimed that he had been offered $100,000 to arrange the assassination of King, and that he hired an assassin that was NOT James Earl Ray. Upon further questioning by authorities, Jowers invoked the Fifth Amendment.
The King family began to question whether Ray was involved in the assassination, and in 1997, publicly forgave Ray for the crime and apologized on behalf of society for what had happened to him. But before a new trial could be arranged, Ray passed away in 1998.
So, did he do it?
The evidence now seems to suggest that if Ray had a role in the assassination, it was that of patsy. Due to the strange circumstances of his escape from prison, his unusual fingerprinting, the fact that his lie detector tests indicated otherwise, the oddly botched search for the assassin after the crime, and other witnesses, it seems that evidence for Ray being the assassin is lukewarm.
On the other hand, forensic and other physical evidence strongly indicates that Ray was the assassin; the discrediting evidence described above is largely circumstantial.
If you are interested, there is a great deal of documentation on the issue. Most highly recommended is the book Killing The Dream by Gerald Posner, as well as Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King? The True Story by the Alleged Assassin by James Earl Ray himself.
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