What "truth" does James Earl Ray have to tell?

Would retrying the convicted killer of Martin Luther King Jr. shed new light on the assassination?


Andrew Ross
March 3, 1997 2:42PM (UTC)

flickers of conspiracy flared again recently in the 29-year-old assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. when a Memphis judge recommended that the rifle purportedly fired by James Earl Ray should be tested to see whether the bullet that killed King came from it. A Tennessee appeals court must decide whether the rifle test should proceed, and that decision could take weeks, if not months. Meanwhile, a groundswell of pressure has built for a new trial for Ray, who has for years insisted that he was a "patsy" in the case. Among those calling for a new trial are King's family. They argue that Ray, who suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, should have another day in court before he dies; only then, they believe, can the doubts around the case
be resolved.

Was Ray framed? Was King the victim of a racist conspiracy? Was the FBI involved? Salon
talked with Robert Blakey, who was the chief counsel of the House Assassinations Committee, which investigated the Kennedy and King killings in the late 1970s. Blakey is now a professor at Notre Dame Law School.

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Is there any reason to reopen the James Earl Ray case?
No. He had a trial. He pled guilty. He didn't just plead guilty, he stipulated to the facts of the killing. His lawyer at the time, Percy Foreman, one of the most prominent defense counsels in this country, looked at the evidence and told Ray, "There's a 100 percent chance you'll be convicted and a 99 percent chance you'll get the death penalty. I would consider it one of the most significant accomplishments of my career if I could save your life. I think pleading guilty would save your life."
But Ray tried to withdraw the confession.
Yes, and a federal district court said the guilty plea was knowing and voluntary and they sustained it. It was again upheld by a federal circuit court of appeals. Then Ray sued his lawyers for malpractice. He lost. So he's had not one, but three trials.

What did the House Assassinations Committee conclude?
We spent over two years and two and a half million dollars looking into whether Ray was involved, whether his trial was fair. We concluded that everything was done consistent with the law, and that he was guilty.
Did Ray testify to the committee?
He testified at length to the committee. One of the high points was what I call the "Bruno Magli shoes" part of his testimony: We had established that Ray was stalking Dr. King, that he had left Los Angeles, and drove down to Selma, to Atlanta and Memphis and back down to Atlanta. He said, "I didn't go back to Atlanta. If you can prove that I went back to Atlanta, I will take credit for the King assassination right here on television." And lo and behold, just as he said that, out came one of our researchers with this enormous blow-up of a receipt from a laundry in Atlanta where Ray picked up his clothes just after the assassination. He lied and he was caught in a lie.

It's also important to underline the fact that this congressional committee had an African-American chairman, (former Rep.) Louis Stokes (of Ohio). It had Walter Fauntroy (the District of Columbia's former congressional delegate), who was an associate of Dr. King and headed up the committee's King task force. It had Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (a black former congresswoman) from California, and it had
a wide range of other people. They all decided that Ray's testimony was unworthy of belief.

But what if the rifle does get re-tested and it turns out the bullet that killed King did not come from that rifle?
There is a common misperception among laymen that if you fire a bullet from a gun, you can always correlate that bullet to that gun, to the exclusion of all others. That's not true. Some guns do not leave distinctive marks on bullets. There is no doubt that Ray bought the weapon, there is no doubt that his fingerprints were on it, there is no doubt that it was at the scene of the assassination. The fact that we could not correlate the bullet that killed Dr. King with the rifle is no big deal. The fact is, it was a 30.06 bullet, just like the rifle is a 30.06.
Now, let us suppose that these new scientific tests would be able to say one of three things: (1) It was the rifle, in which case, we know what we already knew; (2) It's inconclusive, in which case, we are back exactly where we were before; Or (3) the bullet didn't come from this rifle. That does not make Ray innocent. What that says is the rifle that was left at the scene is not the assassination rifle. Now, wait a second. Ray's story has always been that "Raoul" shot King with that rifle and that he planted that rifle on Ray. So if the bullet didn't come from the rifle, that must mean that Raoul planted the wrong rifle on Ray. And Ray and Raoul were there with two rifles?
How long did you spend looking for "Raoul" and the other supposed conspirators?

Two and a half years. We made the judgement early that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Ray as the shooter. The important question then was, did he have help? So we made a "link analysis," drawing concentric circles of associates out from the shooter. We drew circles out from his family. We also looked at the usual suspects, in this case, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Party (then headed by George Wallace). We even looked at the Marcello crime family.

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What we came up with was the possibility of a race-based conspiracy in St. Louis where a $50,000 bounty had been offered on Dr. King's life involving two men, Sutherland and Kaufman. It was only a possibility; we couldn't prove it and both of them were dead before our investigation started. But we were able to trace Kaufman to the Grapevine Tavern in St. Louis, where he used to hold meetings of the American Party. The tavern was owned by James Earl Ray's brother, John. Was it possible that the $50,000 bounty was discussed in the tavern and heard by John Ray, and that John Ray then conveyed it to James Earl? Yes. Were we ever able to say definitively that John Ray was the conduit from the Kaufman group to James Earl? No.
It could have been a family conspiracy?
It's very difficult to make any conspiracy case 10 years after the event. Our final report said that the '68 investigation was a good shooter investigation and a good fugitive investigation, but it was not a good conspiracy investigation. There were leads that Ramsey Clark (then U.S. attorney general) could have pursued, while Ray was a fugitive, by using electronic surveillance on the Ray family. Let's assume for a minute -- this is really hypothetical -- that the family was complicitous and Clark had put a bug in their office, car, house, in a legitimate effort to find Ray. Would he have overheard incriminating conversations? I don't know. By the time we got there in 1979, we had the outlines of it, but Kaufman is dead, Sutherland is dead. And Ray won't talk.

Did you talk to his brother, John Ray?
Oh, yes, we talked to both of his brothers, Jerry and John. They lied about everything that they did. John Ray, as the final report says, was a bank robber, but he denied it. He lied. We referred him to the Justice Department for perjury charges. The department declined to prosecute. Said they didn't think it was prosecutable. I can tell you, it was a prosecutable case.

Any suspicion that maybe John Ray was on the FBI payroll?
That we would have found out.

J. Edgar Hoover was known to hate King. The FBI was running all sorts of operations against him.
Did you look at the FBI's possible involvement in the assassination

Yes, we took the FBI and we figured, all right, Hoover killed him. Well, who are Hoover's associates? The FBI agents who were spying on King? OK, which ones
had any contact with James Earl Ray? We got no connections. We had unlimited access to the FBI files, including their informant files. We went into the whole Cointelpro operation that was designed to discredit Dr. King. Let me tell you, I had every incentive in the world to prove that the FBI did it, with Ray or without Ray.
You had an incentive to tie the FBI to the King assassination?
Well, can you imagine the book I would have written? "FBI Kills King, Blakey Proves It." And look, I worked for Lou Stokes. You think he didn't have an incentive to prove it if he could've? What about Walter Fauntroy -- King was his friend. You think Walter Fauntroy wasn't on me, watching me?
So you don't believe the FBI was in any way involved?
Look, if Ray had been paid by the FBI to shoot King, why hasn't Ray given up the FBI?
And, if you posit this paranoid's vision of an all-powerful, no-holds-barred government,
able to kill people by hiring assassins, why would they leave a witness? If Ray could give up the bureau, do you really think he would have survived this long?

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Here are some of the specific criticisms that people who are calling for a new trial make. First, where did Ray get the money to travel around freely for 14 months, even going to Europe?
We went through that step by step. We determined how much money he spent, where, and how he got it. We concluded that if in fact there was a $50,000 bounty, Ray never collected it. The source of his traveling money was probably a bank robbery he committed in Alton (Illinois). Everybody says, "Oh, Ray couldn't have gotten into Canada or got a passport and gone to Europe." We went up and talked to the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) about that and they laughed in our face. They said all he had to do is walk into a bar and wave a $50 bill and he could get a passport.
OK. Another question people raise is, why were Ray's possible links with white supremacist groups never properly investigated?
But it WAS! Endlessly. The people who say that are people who haven't read our hearings. It's all laid out. In those days the FBI had informants in the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy groups in the South. One of the jokes was if the Klan had a three-member cell, two of them were FBI informants. We went through all their files and identified who the white supremacists were, where they were having meetings and what they were talking about. There was just no evidence to connect them to Ray.
Another aspect people are suspicious of is why King's security detail was pulled off at the last minute.

It's not true. The guy who said, "I was on King's security and got pulled off" wasn't on security; he was on surveillance. Understand? He was sent there by the Memphis police not to protect King but to conduct surveillance and his so-called story that he was sent to protect, and was pulled off, was investigated very carefully by our committee. He acknowledged in our hearings that he lied when he said that he was on the security detail.
Why not unseal the House committee records of the King investigation, like critics have demanded?

We made them as much public as we could, according to congressional rules. To do more, you would have to change the rules. I read every single document in the King case. I can tell you, there is nothing in them that would make any difference to what we already know.
Why then is there still such suspicion about the case?
It has become an issue of symbolism. These questions that are being raised are not literal questions. They are expressions of concerns, about race relations in American society and about distrust of government. In a sense I see this whole thing as bread and circuses. We've got real problems in this country today, but instead of talking about them, you and I are talking about the possibility of a conspiracy 30 years ago. It's entertainment. What's significant about Dr. King is not how he died in Memphis, but the legacy he left. Which means what we ought to be worried about if we want to be true to that legacy is about poverty, opportunity, discrimination.

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Yet the King family -- his real heirs -- are at the forefront of the push for a new trial.

I have no criticisms of the King family whatsoever. Their judgement is theirs alone to make. But let me say one thing: Many people who want a new trial for Ray say that only then will "the truth come out." Truth comes out of a trial? Then explain to me all about the O.J. case. Nobody truly believes that the truth comes out as the result of a trial. And if the truth that you are concerned about is not simply whether or not Ray did it but whether others were involved, giving Ray a new trial is not going to answer that.


Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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