Guilt or Galt?
James Earl Ray's unanswered questions.
By Beverly Keel
MAY 4, 1998: While James Earl Ray's brother finalizes plans for a memorial service next month, a cloud of controversy still hovers over Tennessee's most famous convicted assassin. Before Ray died last week from advanced liver disease, he had once again been in the headlines, but not just for reasons of historical significance, even though this month marks the 30th anniversary of the April 1968 killing of Martin Luther King Jr.
Only three days after entering a guilty plea in 1969, Ray retracted his confession. He vehemently maintained his innocence until his death. In recent years, Ray wasn't the lone voice of protest; he was joined by many of King's closest friends.
The slain civil rights leader's family, some of whom now believe Ray was innocent, has asked President Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to reopen the case. Ray's attorney, William Pepper, recently announced that during the search of Ray's car, a law-enforcement official discovered two pieces of paper that prove the existence of the mysterious Raoul, the man who, according to Ray, set him up to take the rap for King's murder. A new set of ballistics tests failed to establish whether Ray's Remington .30-06 hunting rifle was the one that killed King.
However, Memphis D.A. Bill Gibbons released last month the results of a seven-month investigation saying the evidence of Ray's guilt was overwhelming. In addition, Gerald Posner's new book, Killing the Dream, concludes that Ray was the lone assassin, motivated by a $50,000 bounty offered by a St. Louis attorney and segregationist. "I think he does take some answers to the grave with him," Posner told the Scene. "Who precisely paid him? I think the most likely paymasters were the racists from St. Louis, but you can't say that with 100-percent certainty.
"Ray knew, and he also takes with him, the answers as to what, if any, was the help provided by his brothers leading up to the murder. So he does get, in that way, the final little laugh here."
After 30 years, the basic facts remain the same: King, in Memphis to support a sanitation strike, was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. A rifle registered to Eric Galt was found about a block away from the motel. A man calling himself Eric Galt had rented a room in a rooming house across from the motel. In the rented room, a dresser and chair had been moved in front of a window, providing a better view of the Lorraine Motel. A white Ford Mustang registered to Galt was also seen fleeing the scene.
Galt was an alias sometimes used by Ray.
Despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence and Ray's own guilty plea, there are many who still have what they consider to be reasonable doubts concerning the case. Ray's supporters note that bushes, which might have hidden a sniper, were trimmed on the morning after the shooting. They also allege that police failed to interview witnesses who could support Ray's alibi. Unless Ray made a secret deathbed confession before he slipped into unconsciousness one final time, several questions may well remain unanswered:
Jerry Ray, a retired night watchman from Smartt, Tenn., says he is 99-percent sure his brother is innocent. "If I said 100 percent, I would have had to have seen or been with him when King was assassinated, and I wasn't," says Ray, who has vowed to clear his brother's name. "I think it's not only important to the Ray family and the King family, but the American public needs to know the truth. You can't help James, but it will help history and prevent anything like this from ever happening again, I hope."
Jerry Ray notes that his brother was fighting for a trial from 1968 until his death, and he can't understand why the government didn't go ahead and simply clear the air. "I figured if he was involved or there was no cover-up, the Justice Department would have wanted a trial, instead of fighting against a trial, so every American would know what they did and didn't have," Jerry Ray says. "If he was guilty, he would have been shown to have been guilty." Instead, Jerry Ray says, his brother's only trial took place on HBO, in a mock procedure staged in 1993. In that trial, Ray was found not guilty.
In addition to the King family, several prominent civil-rights leaders, such as Andrew Young and the Rev. James Lawson, have also defended Ray's innocence. "He was an unknowing patsy from the beginning," says Lawson, who will officiate at Ray's memorial service. "He did not know he was involved in the plot to kill King, and he didn't know the players in the plot."
Lawson says King would have wanted his friends to fight for Ray's innocence. "If King could, he would have been fighting for James Earl Ray to be out of jail. King had no doubts that the death threats that came to him weren't coming from some lone assassin. He knew they were an emanation of a racist society. He knew that [FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover] was his enemy and Hoover wanted him dead."
However, Posner contends that Ray was talking about killing black leaders as early as the mid-1960s and that he later told his brothers, "I'm gonna kill that nigger King. That's something that has been on my mind."
Ray had learned how to use aliases by observing his father, who also spent time in prison and would leave the U.S. for short periods of time after committing crimes. Posner also says Ray underwent plastic surgery in Los Angeles to reduce a prominent nose. It was the sort of move a man might make if he were about to become the subject of an international manhunt, Posner suggests.
"I think the shame of this is that, after 30 years, [Ray] almost had his cake and was able to eat it too," Posner says. "He knew in his heart he was guilty. The shame is, not only does he take the life of this civil rights leader, but he dupes [King's] family too."
Posner contends that Ray was a racist from an early age. He points to the fact that Ray refused to transfer to the minimum-security honor farm at Leavenworth Penitentiary "because the farm was integrated and the prison was not. He didn't want to be with blacks." (Jerry Ray says his brother didn't accept the transfer because drugs were readily available at the farm and Ray was afraid of being set up and sentenced to more time.) According to a recent story in The New York Times, King's image on TV was enough to send Ray into a rage. The Times reports that Ray was heard to say, "Somebody's got to get him. If I ever get to the streets, I am going to kill him."
Posner's view is that "in the end, yes, he was a racist, but he didn't kill King because King was black. Ray was able to take an assignment for money. Because King was black, it didn't mean as much to him. He was only killing a black man in the South.
"It was only easier than killing a white man."
Jerry Ray says his brother "got along with everybody and it didn't matter who you are, old or young, black or white." Pepper says Ray often shot craps with black coworkers after finishing his prison work.
Lawson says not one black person who met Ray believes he was racist. "When Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson visited Ray, when Dick Gregory visited Ray, they came out saying they got nothing from Ray that indicated he was a racist," Lawson says. "I think I know when a white person has fears, hesitations, and prejudices based on deep-seated learnings they haven't dealt with. I've never had that feeling with Ray."
In fact, Pepper says, Ray realized over time that there were more similarities than differences between him and King. "For example," Pepper notes, "Dr. King hated war, and James never liked the war because people like him were used as cannon fodder all the time, whether they were white or black. Martin King favored the redistribution of wealth and that is something he could have benefited from as much as any other poor person, so he supported that."
Many of Ray's apologists say there was no way he was bright enough to pull off the murder of one of the nation's most celebrated black leaders. Pepper says Ray had only "average intelligence," but Posner disagrees, arguing that Ray "was more clever and smarter than you would think from his background." He notes that Ray was smart enough to escape from prison three times and was successful at creating false identities for himself.
At least on this point, both sides agree, saying that Ray was pressured by his attorney at the time to plead guilty, in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. However, that guilty plea remained Ray's biggest obstacle in clearing his name in the court of public opinion. "It's what a con like Ray would do, which is avoid the most serious penalty, the chance of death, and then immediately begin the effort to get out of prison," Posner says.
Jerry Ray says his brother was threatened with more than the certainty of his own electrocution. Jerry Ray says James Earl Ray was told his father and brother would be thrown into prison unless he pleaded guilty.
In jail, Jerry Ray says, his brother was pressured to confess. "They had the air-conditioning on him 24 hours a day and the lights were like a TV studio," Jerry Ray says. "A guard was with him 24 hours a day and sound equipment was hooked up 24 hours a day so they could hear him breathe. It was kind of a torture chamber."
Lawson says the treatment of Ray can be compared to the treatment of prisoners of war during the Korean War.
While many civil-rights leaders believe J. Edgar Hoover was behind the plot to assassinate King, Pepper believes President Lyndon Johnson was aware of the plan, which, Pepper says, was carried out by the Army, the FBI, and the CIA. The only one kept out of the loop, Pepper says, was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, whom Johnson didn't trust. According to Pepper, "This was a chain-of-command operation. No one would take responsibility for this killing; it would potentially ruin a career."
But Pepper says the government's real problem with King was his opposition to the war in Vietnam. "He was going to bring 500,000 people to Washington and take up residence there in the shadow of the Washington Monument," Pepper says. "The Army was convinced this would turn into an open rebellion."
According to Pepper, Ray's death marks "the end of the petition, the end of the trial. Whether there is any action, like a civil suit by the Ray family or the Kings' interest in a private prosecution, that's always a possibility. But I think this is pretty much the end of it."
Posner predicts that Ray's story will now become part of popular culture, just as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has done. Moviemaker Oliver Stone is currently working on a project called Memphis. Another movie, He Slew the Dreamer, will feature Leonardo DiCaprio as former Ray attorney Mark Lane. A documentary focusing on one of the investigators in the case was optioned just this week. "So I think where we go from here is the J.F.K.-type of film and even wilder conspiracy theories," Posner says.
Although the King family remained silent for more than two decades, it's likely they will continue their public quest for the truth, Lawson says. "Now a new generation has become the spokespersons for the family," he explains, adding that questions about the King assassination are not likely to go away. Instead, he predicts, the younger generation of the King family "are not going to let it rest until there is the opening of an investigation of such a fashion that all the witnesses that Congress never looked at, that the FBI never uncovered, that they dismissed, are really heard."
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