Guilty or Not?

The case was open and shut.

On April 2, 1968, small-time crook and unapologetic racist James Earl Ray drove from Atlanta, Georgia to Memphis Tennessee. Two days later, on April 4, and armed with a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster .30-06-caliber rifle mounted with a Redfield 2x-7x scope, Ray killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. with a single shot as King stood on the balcony on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel. Witnesses claimed to see Ray fleeing the scene just moments after the shot was fired. A package containing a rifle and a pair of binoculars was found abandoned near a rooming house–where Ray had been staying–across the street from the motel. Both items were covered with Ray’s fingerprints. After fleeing the country, Ray was eventually arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport in June and extradited back the United States. On March 10, 1969–his 41st birthday–Ray confessed to the assassination of Dr. King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

No trial. No questions. Nothing. A crime, a confession, a penalty. Done, done, and done.

Until it wasn’t

Only days later, Ray recanted his confession. Instead, he claimed, he’d been set up by a man named “Raoul” who, in 1967, recruited him into a gunrunning enterprise. It was Raoul, Ray said, who had directed him to buy the gun and the binoculars, and rent the room across the street from the motel. In fact, Ray maintained he wasn’t even in the room when King was shot; after realizing he was being set up to be the “fall guy” for the King assassination, he fled to Canada (hence the reason witnesses saw him flee the scene.) Despite these assertions, “Raoul” was never found and Ray was unable to give a conclusive answer to his whereabouts that day. His claims were dismissed and requests for a trial ignored for the next 29 years.

Ignored by everyone except the King family themselves.

During the 1990s, the widow and children of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke publicly in support of Ray and his claims, calling him innocent and speculating about an assassination conspiracy involving the U.S. government and military.

“It pains my heart,” said Bernice King, 55, the youngest of Martin Luther King’s four children and the executive director of the King Center in Atlanta, is quoted as saying in Washington Post article, “that James Earl Ray had to spend his life in prison paying for things he didn’t do.”

According to the King family, there were multiple government and military agencies discontent with King’s activities and, in the months and years leading up to his assassination, keeping close tabs on the civil rights leader. FBI J. Edgar Hoover, for one, believed King to be a communist and openly denounced and smeared King’s name in public. The FBI maintained constant surveillance and wiretapping on all King’s communication and activities, with one former agent claiming the bureau’s tracking of King was second “only to the way they went after Jimmy Hoffa.” King’s call for radical economic reforms, including guaranteed annual incomes for all, only furthered suspicions about his communist ties, putting him under further scrutiny by the Cold War-era U.S. government. In addition, Dr. King was also monitored by U.S. military intelligence, after he publicly denounced the Vietnam War. All of this, King’s family maintained, lays the groundwork for a reasonable belief that King was the target of a plot. They even went so far as to file a civil suit in 1999. During the subsequent trial, a Memphis jury ruled that the local, state and federal governments were liable for King’s death.

However, history, it seemed, had already been written. Ray, who had died in prison the previous year, was not exonerated. And the running, accepted narrative is still that James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King, Jr.

But neither has it put the conspiracy theories to rest.

While some believe in Ray’s innocence–most notable the King family–others surmise he may pulled the trigger but have been bolstered by the support of others–a sort of “low level” conspiracy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations under chief counsel Robert Blakey, theorized in 1979 that Ray committed the killing in the hope of collecting a $50,000 bounty offered by supporters of then-presidential candidate George Wallace in St. Louis, where Ray’s brothers lived. Ray was a known Wallace supporter, even volunteering at Wallace’s campaign headquarters in North Hollywood. There was, however, no definitive evidence to prove that Wallace nor any of his supporters played any role in the assassination.

In 1998, the King family pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton to reinvestigate the case. Attorney General Janet Reno assigned civil rights special counsel Barry Kowalski to review the newest conspiracy allegations. In 2000, even after reviewing the results of the 1999 civil trial in Memphis, Kowalski concluded that Ray was guilty and that there was no government conspiracy.

King’s widow died in 2006, still maintaining Ray’s innocence.

So who really killed Dr. King and why? Was Ray a murderous racist, a hired assassin, or an unlucky fall guy?

The world, unfortunately, may never know for sure.

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