Racing against death, James Earl Ray’s efforts to reopen an investigation into the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inched forward Thursday, helped along by testimony from the civil rights leader’s widow and son.
But Ray, who has argued for years that his shadowy co-conspirators duped him into confessing to King’s murder, is still a far from his goal of a trial. All concerned acknowledged the possibility the gravely ill Ray will not live long enough to see a resolution.
Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Joseph B. Brown ruled that enhanced technology may now make it possible to prove conclusively whether Ray’s gun fired the fatal shot in April 1968. Rather than order tests, however, Brown said he will relay his finding of fact to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which overruled a decision by Brown ordering tests on the rifle in 1994.
Brown told reporters after the hearing that he is sending the matter to the appellate court “out of an abundance of caution.”
But Ray’s brother, Jerry Ray, told reporters after the hearing that Brown’s decision “was just like a death sentence. By the time it goes to the court of appeals … he’ll be dead.”
He later softened his assessment.
Ray, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, will die in three to five months unless he receives a transplant.
Perhaps more noteworthy than the ruling itself was the spectacle of King’s widow and son testifying on behalf of the convicted assassin and chatting with Ray’s brother, a man whom authorities have speculated may have helped commit the murder.
Coretta Scott King, in her first public statement on the subject of whether Ray committed the crime, said the issue of culpability in the murder of her husband is of importance not only to her family but to the nation.
“We believe that the only way … new evidence can be appreciably evaluated is in a court of law. Without a trial the evidence will be the subject of unending speculation.”
Added Dexter King: “If this is such an open-and-shut case, why are we still being asked the question: ‘Do you believe Mr. Ray killed your father?”’
The family only recently decided to take a public stand in the issue, after hours of emotional discussions.
Shortly before the start of Thursday’s hearing, the King and Ray families met for the first time when Jerry Ray sat behind the Kings, tapped them on the shoulder and thanked them. Dexter King chatted amiably with him for several minutes.
William Pepper, Ray’s attorney, said he was optimistic that the appellate court would rule quickly and that the bullet could be tested using a scanning electron microscope, a little-used device which was not available in 1968 and which experts said may have a better chance of proving whether the bullet taken from King’s body was fired by the Remington 30.06 rifle police found near the murder scene.
Previous tests have all been inconclusive, and Ray’s defense team has never been allowed to test the rifle.