American criminal James Earl Ray (1928–1998) pled guilty to assassinating civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and was sentenced to 99 years in prison on March 10, 1969. Three days later he recanted his plea. He then spent almost 30 years vainly attempting to win the right to the trial he had forsworn. He eventually gained such unlikely allies as members of the King family and the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his protestations of innocence and quest for a trial. Ray's death on April 23, 1998, did little to quell the unanswered questions and conspiracy theories that abounded, but a 2000 probe led by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno found no credible evidence to reopen the investigation. Nonetheless, there were some who remained unconvinced.
Ray was born into poverty on March 10, 1928, in Alton, Illinois. He was the eldest child of Lucille and George Ellis Ray, who briefly moved the family to Bowling Green, Missouri, when Ray was two. In 1935 the family relocated again, this time to a bleak and arid 60-acre farm in Ewing, Missouri, that was bought while Ray's father was out on bond for a forgery conviction. The family's dismal prospects did not improve with the move.
Ewing was located in Lewis County, a poor white region across the Mississippi River from Quincy, Illinois. The Ku Klux Klan thrived there in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Rays reportedly embraced the group's racist beliefs. The family's life was undeniably difficult, whatever its members' unsavory views. Grinding deprivation, the death of an eight-year-old daughter, and another of a 19-year-old son were just a few of their hardships over the years. Ray himself was troubled early in life, suffering from such problems as recurring nightmares, stuttering, and bed-wetting. He attended school only sporadically, and because of his ragged clothes and antisocial behavior, was unpopular when he did make an appearance. One teacher, according to Harold Jackson of the Guardian , went so far as to note in her report on him that Ray was "repulsive" in appearance. It could not have been an easy beginning to his life.
Unsurprisingly, crime and alcohol were integral parts of the family dynamic, and the young Ray was soon following suit by brawling in saloons and engaging in petty theft. At 14, he was running errands for the proprietress of a local brothel when he was caught stealing a customer's pair of pants. That same year, he had his first official run-in with the police when he stole some newspapers and attempted to sell them. He was released with a warning and went on to a brief reprieve of regular employment at a shoe company near St. Louis, Missouri, but lost the job in 1945 at the end of World War II. Ray's next, and last, best hope lay with the U.S. Army.
Unfortunately, military service was too late to change Ray's future. He signed on with the U.S. Army shortly after World War II was over, but it proved an unhappy alliance. Ray was posted to Germany, where his pro-Nazi sympathies and black marketeering activities quickly absorbed him. Characteristically, however, it was not such major infractions that were his downfall. Instead, he was court- martialled for drunkenness and received a general discharge for being inept. Thus, in December of 1948, Ray found himself back in the United States no further ahead than he had been before.
Once again, crime became Ray's mainstay. He attempted the straight and narrow path via a job at a rubber company in Chicago, Illinois, but was serving a three-month sentence for burglary in California by December of 1949. In 1952, he was handed a two-year sentence for armed robbery in Chicago, and 1955 saw his graduation to the federal system with a four-year stint at Leavenworth, Kansas, for a post office robbery. He was back in St. Louis in 1959, and back in prison in 1960. That intended incarceration of 20 years, for armed robbery, at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, lasted until Ray's escape in 1967.
In April of 1967 Ray escaped from prison by hiding inside a bakery van. Little is known about his activities in the following year, but it appears he spent much of his time in Canada. What is clear is that he had made his way to Memphis, Tennessee, by April of 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis that April to lend his support to striking city sanitation workers. At the time, King was the most prominent leader of the American civil rights movement. On April 4, he was standing on the balcony of the city's Lorraine Motel when he was shot at 6:01 PM. King died within the hour, sparking riots across the country and dimming hopes for the nonviolent means he had espoused.
That same day, Ray had checked in to a boarding house across the street from King's motel. He then allegedly shot King with a Remington 30.06 from the bathroom window of the motel, abandoned the rifle, which bore his fingerprints, and escaped to Atlanta in a rented Ford Mustang. From there, he led authorities on a chase as he fled from Atlanta to Canada to England to Portugal and back to England. They finally caught up with him at London's Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968.
Ray eventually waived extradition and was returned to the United States. He pled guilty to King's murder on March 10, 1969, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Three days later he recanted his plea and claimed innocence of the crime. That refrain, along with the attendant pursuit of the trial he had given up, would consume the remainder of Ray's life.
Claiming he was coerced into giving his guilty plea, Ray delivered various versions of King's assassination over the years. One version was a theory of conspiracy, generally in the form of a shadowy gunrunner named "Raoul," who Ray maintained was part of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plot to frame him. Raoul was never located, but the story led to a spate of conspiracy theories. Favorite suspects included the Mafia, racists, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the FBI. Of the latter, its director, J. Edgar Hoover, was certainly no fan of King's. Over time, those proclaiming Ray's innocence, or at least the theory that he did not act alone, included such unlikely Ray supporters as members of King's family and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Supporters of Ray's claims, or of the idea that he had not acted alone, pointed to the unlikely scenario. How did a comparatively ineffective petty criminal plan and fund such a crime? How did an unschooled and not particularly bright misfit elude law enforcement authorities for over two months in four countries? Few argued Ray's probable motivation as a bigot, although some even denied the rather overwhelming evidence of his racism, focusing instead on his lack of resources. In short, was it truly plausible that a prison escapee of limited financial means and decidedly unremarkable intellect could pull off such a horrendous crime and efficient escape without assistance?
Law enforcement officials and historians generally dismissed such lingering questions and remained convinced that the right man had been convicted. As Memphis lead state prosecutor William Gibbons succinctly told the Houston Chronicle after Ray's death, "I believe the history books will accurately record that James Earl Ray was the killer of Dr. King." Others, such as Evan Thomas of Newsweek , saw the conspiracy faction as a natural, if inaccurate, reaction to the murder of an illustrious man. "Attraction to the larger theories about the fallen leader's death is not hard to fathom. A federal conspiracy seems more commensurate with the genuine greatness of the target than the sad truth that a hater lucked into the shot of a lifetime," he wrote. Still, the rumors persisted.
Ray's time in jail was turbulent. He escaped and was recaptured twice from Tennessee's Brushy Mountain State Prison (1977 and 1979). On October 13, 1978, he married courtroom artist Anna Sandhu. He was repeatedly stabbed by black inmates in 1981 and transferred to the Tennessee State Penitentiary for his safety soon afterward. The year 1991 saw the release of his book Who Killed Martin Luther King? The True Story of a Convicted Assassin , and 1993 brought the dissolution of his marriage. Along the way, likely from blood transfusions after the stabbing, he contracted hepatitis-C, which eventually led to the kidney and liver disease that killed him. But through it all, Ray tirelessly campaigned for a new trial. It was not to be.
During Ray's incarceration, a total of eight Tennessee and federal courts refused to grant him the trial he had passed up in 1969. Four separate investigations, the latest of which was conducted by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in 2000, found no credible evidence of conspiracy or basis upon which to reopen the case. Toward the end of his life, Ray set his sights on obtaining official government records regarding the assassination opened in hopes of proving his innocence, but those files were to remain sealed until the year 2027. Even such powerful new allies as King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson could not budge the prevailing view that justice had already been served in the case.
In 1996 Ray's health began to fail markedly. He was hospitalized more than 15 times between December of that year and April of 1998, thrice lapsing into nearly fatal comas. He was refused permission to travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a liver transplant and denied clemency to spend his final days at his brother's home or a veterans' hospital. On April 23, 1998, Ray died of kidney failure and complications from liver disease.
Reactions to the death of one of the United States' most notorious criminals aptly delineated the opposing views on his guilt. Arthur Brice and Jack Warner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted King's widow's statement as, "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. as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray's innocence. It is regrettable that Mr. Ray was denied his day in court, but the American people have a right to the truth about this tragedy, and we intend to do everything we can to bring it to light." Memphis Assistant District Attorney John Campbell, on the other hand, told Brice and Warner, "James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. It's a shame he never would spell out the circumstances of the crime—why he did it. He had the power to do that. Now his legacy will be all these wild conspiracy theories that will be spun out." Whichever side one came down on, Ray was gone; and whatever secrets he may or may not have had were gone with him.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution , April 24, 1998.
Guardian (London, England), April 24, 1998.
Houston Chronicle , April 24, 1998.
Independent (London, England), April 25, 1998.
Jet , June 26, 2000.
Newsweek , May 4, 1998.
People , May 11, 1998.
San Francisco Chronicle , April 24, 1998.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch , April 24, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report , May 4, 1998; December 20, 1999.
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