James Earl Ray
Mug shot of Ray taken on July 8, 1955
|Born||March 10, 1928|
Alton, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||April 23, 1998 (aged 70)|
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Parent(s)||James Gerald Ray|
|Conviction(s)||Murder, prison escape, armed robbery, burglary|
|Criminal penalty||99 years imprisonment (one year was added after his re-capture for a total of 100 years)|
|Victims||Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.|
|Date||April 4, 1968|
James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 – April 23, 1998) was an American fugitive and felon convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Ray was convicted in 1969 after entering a guilty plea (thus forgoing a jury trial and the possibility of a death sentence) and was sentenced to 99 years' imprisonment. At the time of his death, he had served 29 years of his sentence.
In February 1935, Ray's father, known by the nickname Speedy, passed a bad check in Alton, Illinois, and then moved to Ewing, Missouri, where the family changed their name to Raynes to avoid law enforcement. Ray was the firstborn of nine children, including John Larry Ray, Franklin Ray, Jerry William Ray, Melba Ray, Carol Ray Pepper, Suzan Ray, and Marjorie Ray. His sister Marjorie died in a fire as a young child. Ray left school at the age of fifteen. He later joined the U.S. Army at the close of World War II and served in Germany. Ray struggled to adapt to military life and was eventually discharged for ineptitude and lack of adaptability in 1948.
Ray committed a variety of crimes prior to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ray's first conviction for criminal activity, a burglary in California, came in 1949. In 1952, he served two years for the armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois. In 1955, Ray was convicted of mail fraud after stealing money orders in Hannibal, Missouri, then forging them to take a trip to Florida. He served four years in Leavenworth. In 1959, Ray was caught stealing $120 in an armed robbery of a St. Louis Kroger store. Ray was sentenced to twenty years in prison for repeated offenses. He escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967 by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery.
Following his escape, Ray stayed on the move throughout the United States and Canada, going first to St. Louis and then onwards to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and Birmingham, Alabama, where he stayed long enough to buy a 1966 Ford Mustang and get an Alabama driver's license. He then drove to Mexico, stopping in Acapulco before settling down in Puerto Vallarta on October 19, 1967.
While in Mexico, Ray, using the alias Eric Starvo Galt, attempted to establish himself as a pornographic film director. Using mail-ordered equipment, he filmed and photographed local prostitutes. Frustrated with his results and jilted by the prostitute with whom he had formed a relationship, Ray left Mexico on or around November 16, 1967.
Ray returned to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on November 19, 1967. While in Los Angeles, Ray attended a local bartending school and took dance lessons. His chief interest, however, was the George Wallace presidential campaign. Ray harbored a strong prejudice against African Americans and was quickly drawn to Wallace's segregationist platform. He spent much of his time in Los Angeles volunteering at the Wallace campaign headquarters in North Hollywood.
He considered emigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where a predominantly white minority regime had unilaterally assumed independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. The notion of living in Rhodesia continued to appeal to Ray for several years afterwards, and it was his intended destination after King's assassination. The Rhodesian government expressed its disapproval.
On March 5, 1968, Ray underwent a facial reconstruction (rhinoplasty), performed by Dr. Russell Hadley. On March 18, 1968, Ray left Los Angeles and began a cross-country drive to Atlanta, Georgia.
Arriving in Atlanta on March 24, 1968, Ray checked into a rooming house. He bought a map of the city. FBI agents later found this map when they searched the room in which he was staying in Atlanta. On the map, the locations of the church and residence of Martin Luther King Jr. were circled.
Ray was soon on the road again and drove his Mustang to Birmingham, Alabama. There, on March 30, 1968, he bought a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster .30-06-caliber rifle and a box of 20 cartridges from the Aeromarine Supply Company. He also bought a Redfield 2x-7x scope, which he had mounted to the rifle. He told the shopkeepers that he was going on a hunting trip with his brother. Ray had continued using the Galt alias after his stint in Mexico, but when he made this purchase, he gave his name as Harvey Lowmeyer.
After purchasing the rifle and accessories, Ray drove back to Atlanta. An avid newspaper reader, Ray passed his time reading the Atlanta Constitution. The paper reported King's planned return trip to Memphis, Tennessee, which was scheduled for April 1, 1968. On April 2, 1968, Ray packed a bag and drove to Memphis.
On April 4, 1968, Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot fired from his Remington rifle, while King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw Ray fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the motel; he had been renting a room in the house at the time. A package was abandoned close to the site that included a rifle and binocular, both found with Ray's fingerprints.
Ray fled to Atlanta in his white Ford Mustang, driving eleven hours. He picked up his belongings and fled north to Canada, arriving in Toronto three days later, where he hid for over a month and acquired a Canadian passport under the false name of Ramon George Sneyd. He left Toronto in late May on a flight to England. He stayed briefly in Lisbon, Portugal, and returned to London.
On June 8, 1968, two months after King's death, Ray was arrested at London Heathrow Airport attempting to leave the United Kingdom for Brussels on a false Canadian passport. At check-in, the ticket agent noticed the name on his passport, Sneyd, was on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police watchlist.
At the airport, officials noticed that Ray carried another passport under a second name. The UK quickly extradited Ray to Tennessee, where he was charged with King's murder. He confessed to the crime on March 10, 1969, his 41st birthday, and after pleading guilty he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Three days later, he recanted his confession. Ray had entered a guilty plea on the advice of his attorney, Percy Foreman, in an effort to avoid the sentence of death by electrocution, which would have been a possible outcome of a jury trial. Unbeknownst to Ray, however, under the ‘’de facto’’ moratorium in place since 1967 and the following ‘’Furman v. Georgia’’, a death sentence would have been commuted as unconstitutional.
Ray fired Foreman as his attorney and derisively called him "Percy Fourflusher" thereafter. Ray began claiming that a man he had met in Montreal back in 1967, who used the alias "Raul," had been deeply involved. Instead, he asserted that he did not "personally shoot Dr. King," but may have been "partially responsible without knowing it," hinting at a conspiracy. Ray told this version of King's assassination and his own flight in the two months afterward to journalist William Bradford Huie.
Huie investigated this story and discovered that Ray lied about some details. Ray told Huie that he purposefully left the rifle with his fingerprints on it in plain sight because he wanted to become a famous criminal. Ray was convinced that he would not be caught because he was so smart. Ray believed that Governor of Alabama George Wallace would soon be elected president and that he would only be confined for a short time. Ray spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw his guilty plea and secure a trial.
On June 10, 1977, Ray and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee. They were recaptured on June 13. A year was added to Ray's previous sentence, increasing it to 100 years. While serving time in the early 1980s at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville, Ray asked to be interviewed by the news media on the anniversary of King's death. Dick Baumbach, the Tennessee Department of Corrections public information officer, coordinated the yearly interviews with local, state and national news media.
Ray had hired Jack Kershaw as his attorney, who promoted Ray's claim that he was not responsible for the shooting. His claim is that it was said to have been the result of a conspiracy of the otherwise unidentified man named "Raul." Kershaw and his client met with representatives of the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations and convinced the committee to conduct ballistics tests—which ultimately proved inconclusive—that they felt would show that Ray had not fired the fatal shot.
Kershaw claimed the escape was additional proof that Ray had been involved in a conspiracy that had provided him with the outside assistance he would have needed to break out of prison. Kershaw convinced Ray to take a polygraph test as part of an interview with Playboy. The magazine said that the test results showed "that Ray did, in fact, kill Martin Luther King Jr. and that he did so alone." Ray fired Kershaw after discovering the attorney had been paid $11,000 by the magazine in exchange for the interview and instead hired attorney Mark Lane to provide him with legal representation.
In 1997, King's son Dexter had a meeting with Ray and asked him, "I just want to ask you, for the record, did you kill my father?" Ray replied, "No. No I didn't," and King told Ray that he, along with the King family, believed him; the King family also urged that Ray be granted a new trial.
William Pepper, a friend of King in the last year of his life, represented Ray in a televised mock trial in an attempt to grant him the trial he never received. In the mock trial, the prosecutor was Hickman Ewing. The mock trial jury acquitted Ray.
In November 1999, Pepper represented the King family in a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers. Jowers, a restaurant owner in Memphis, was brought to civil court in December 1999 and sued for being part of a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King Jr. He was found legally liable, and the King family accepted $100 in restitution, an amount chosen to show that they were not pursuing the case for financial gain. The jury, concluding on December 8, found that Loyd Jowers as well as others, including governmental agencies, had been part of a conspiracy. The King family concluded that Ray did not have anything to do with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Coretta Scott King said, "The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband. The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame."
Prompted by the King family's acceptance of some of the claims of conspiracy, United States Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a new investigation on August 26, 1998. On June 9, 2000, the United States Department of Justice released a 150-page report rejecting allegations that there was a conspiracy to assassinate King, including the findings of the Memphis civil court jury.
Ray died at age 70 on April 23, 1998, at the Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital from complications related to kidney disease and liver failure caused by hepatitis C. His brother, Jerry, told CNN that his brother did not want to be buried or have his final resting place in the United States because of "the way the government has treated him." The body was cremated and his ashes were flown to Ireland, the home of his maternal family's ancestors. Ten years later, Ray's other brother, John Larry Ray, co-wrote a book with Lyndon Barsten, titled Truth At Last: The Untold Story Behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.