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Martin Luther King Jr. Case Revisited

February 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: We do go first tonight to the James Earl Ray story. In a Memphis court today the family of Martin Luther King called for the trial that did not happen 29 years ago. Tom Bearden reports.

TOM BEARDEN: On April 4, 1968, a gunman shot and killed the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis Tennessee.

ANNOUNCER: Dr. King was standing here on this motel balcony yesterday afternoon when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

TOM BEARDEN: Within two months an out-of-work drifter with a criminal record, James Earl Ray, was captured in England and arrested for the murder. Facing a possible death sentence Ray pleaded “guilty” in exchange for life imprisonment. But just days later he recanted his confession, saying it had been coerced. The court, however, refused to grant him a trial. Since then in interviews and parole hearings Ray has repeatedly asked for the trial he never got.

JAMES EARL RAY: Well, first, I didn’t kill Dr. King.

TOM BEARDEN: Now dying of liver disease James Earl Ray is asking for a liver transplant and for one last chance to tell his story before a judge. In 1979 a House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Ray was the triggerman but indicated there may have been co-conspirators. In the 29 years since King’s death his followers have speculated that those co-conspirators could be anyone from government agents to organized crime figures, to white supremacists. But the King family remained silent on the issues until last week. Dexter King, who was just seven years old when his father was killed, said a trial could shed light on some lingering questions the family has.

DEXTER KING: (February 13) The lack of a satisfactory resolution to questions surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a source of continuing pain and hardship to our family. Every effort must be made to determine truth. We feel strongly that this can only be accomplished in a court of law.

TOM BEARDEN: At today’s court hearing in Memphis, Ray’s attorney asked for permission to conduct ballistic tests on the rifle Ray allegedly used. His attorney believes those tests will prove it was not the murder weapon.

WILLIAM PEPPER, Attorney for James Earl Ray: As to this petition, Your Honor, and this effort, Your Honor will recall that as long ago as June 6, 1994, Your Honor ordered that the petition be allowed to inspect and test fire the rifle in evidence. In this case petitioner has always alleged that the rifle in evidence is not the murder weapon but a throw-down gun. And in the 28-year history of this case the petitioner forced the defendant and now the petitioner has never had the right to test this right. The defense has never had the right to have access to FBI test fire worksheet reports, nor House Select Committee test fire worksheet reports. So what we are seeking here for the first time once again, Your Honor, is an opportunity to test this rifle in an effort to exclude it for all time as the murder weapon.

TOM BEARDEN: Coretta Scott King, Rev. Martin Luther King’s widow, took the stand to testify in favor of a trial.

CORETTA SCOTT KING: Martin Luther King, Jr. believed very deeply in civil rights and justice even for his most violent and hate-filled adversaries. It would be a tragic irony, therefore, if the man accused of assassinating my husband is denied his day in court. Conversely, if you will set a trial for Mr. Ray, history will record that his rights were fully respected, and the legal system made every effort to find out the truth about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

TOM BEARDEN: Dexter King told the court his family wanted an answer as to who killed his father.

DEXTER KING: The question is asked on many occasions why now, why 30 years later, 29 years later, why are you bringing this forth? To my knowledge, there is no statute of limitations on murder. The fact of the matter is, is that until we address this injustice, my father often said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And my conviction has always been and that of my siblings that if this case is such an open and shut case, why are we still being asked the question: Do you believe Mr. Ray killed your father?

So I think it all speaks for itself; that we are still dealing with a very perplexing question that challenges all of us to do what is right. I’m often reminded of my favorite statement that my father would make, and that is, if I may quote him, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. Politics ask the question: Is it expedient?

He went on to say, Vanity asks the question: Is it popular? The conscience, and I repeat, conscience asks the question: Is it right?” And I believe today, Your Honor, that it is right for the sake of truth and justice that there be a trial, a trial to get to the truth. The whole truth, nothing but the truth will set us free.

TOM BEARDEN: Shelby County prosecutors argued against a ballistics test or having a trial.

JOHN CAMPBELL, Prosecutor: The history of this rifle testing and the barrel in this case has shown that it doesn’t mark the bullet the same way every time it’s fired. There’s no way to be able to say within a scientific certainty that whatever result is obtained would be equal to the result the rifle would have given April 4, 1968.

So based on the–on the testimonies before Your Honor, the petitioner hasn’t proven this new scientific technology and, furthermore, really hasn’t shown that this technology would, in fact, change the results that have already been testified to before Congress and what the FBI found, an inconclusive result. This bullet, for whatever, has never been able to be actually matched to this gun. That’s the way it’s been now for almost 30 years.

We’re very aware of the family’s desire to get more information out about this case. But we’re also aware that to say that the only way to do that is through a re-trial of James Earl Ray, to set aside what the state would submit, is a valid conviction.

Just for the opportunity to go out and set that aside and try this case to see if other involved, and as Your Honor is well aware, if Mr. Ray was actually retried, the only issue that the jury would be considering is the proof as to Mr. Ray. And to come in and say we’re going to bring in all this other evidence to try to paint this huge picture involving all these other people would very probably not even be relevant in a trial of Mr. Ray.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Mr. Ray would ever have to get up and testify and say anything in his trial. He has the right to remain silent. So we’re talking about a complete gamble to see if anything extra can come out of a trial with Mr. Ray. What, in fact, we have is a valid conviction that has been affirmed seven times by two different court systems.

JIM LEHRER: Late this afternoon the judge ruled new technology did exist that could determine if Ray’s rifle actually killed Dr. King. The Tennessee Court of Appeals must now review that ruling before ballistic tests can be conducted and a trial considered. Now four perspectives on this situation from NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Jesse Jackson, a former aide to Dr. King.

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