April 23, 1998
James Earl Ray, the man who admitted to killing Martin Luther King Jr. and then retracted his admission, died of kidney failure. Now the answer to whether he acted alone, was part of a conspiracy or an innocent bystander, may die with him. Following a background report on Ray's life, three experts debate the controversy over who really killed the civil rights leader.
KWAME HOLMAN: Severely ill for months, 70-year-old James Early Ray succumbed to kidney failure at a Nashville hospital this morning. He was the prime suspect in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
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April 23, 1998
Three experts debate the James Earl Ray controversy.
March 2, 1998
Is America fragmenting into separate and unequal societies?
December 2, 1997
President Clinton holds a town hall meeting on race in America.
February 20, 1997
The family of Martin Luther King Jr. asks to reopen the investigation into his assassination.
January 15, 1997
A conversation with Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of the late civil rights leader.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of race relations.
The Martin Luther King Jr., Paper's Project at Stanford University.
The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
REPORTER: Dr. King was standing here on this motel balcony yesterday afternoon when he was struck down by an assassin's bullet.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ray had been an out-of-work drifter and was an escaped felon at the time of the shooting. He was captured in London two months after the assassination. He pleaded guilty, avoiding the death penalty, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. But three days after sentencing, Ray recanted his confession, saying it had been coerced by authorities. In succeeding years, Ray repeatedly appealed for and was denied a new trial.
JAMES EARL RAY: Well, first, I didn't kill Dr. King.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last year, suffering from liver disease, Ray again asked for the chance to tell his story in court. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded Ray was the triggerman in the King assassination but indicated there may have been co-conspirators.
The King family speaks out.
The King family remained silent on those theories until February 1997. At a hearing in Memphis, Dexter King, who was seven when his father was killed, and his mother, Coretta Scott King, requested a trial for Ray.
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.
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."
KWAME HOLMAN: The Kings and Ray's attorney also suspected newly available ballistics tests would prove the rifle Ray allegedly used could not have fired the bullet that killed King. The test-firings were performed a year ago but were inconclusive. Last month, Tennessee law enforcement officials released the results of a five-year investigation into conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. They said they were "absolutely convinced" Ray was the killer.
Today, Coretta King issued a statement, saying, Ray's death was a "tragedy," and that "America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray's trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr."