James Earl Ray
March 10, 1928 - April 23, 1998
James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 – April 23, 1998) was convicted
of the assassination of American civil rights leader Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., which occurred on April 4, 1968 in Memphis,
Tennessee. Ray had been placed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted
Fugitives list twice.
James Earl Ray came from a poor family in Alton, Illinois and
left school at 15. He joined the army and served in Germany. In
1949 he was convicted of burglary in California and in 1952 he
served two years for armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois.
In 1955 he was convicted of mail fraud. After an armed robbery
in Missouri in 1959, Ray was sentenced to 20 years as a habitual
offender. In 1967 he escaped by hiding in a truck transporting
bread from the prison bakery.
Capture and trial
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was staying at a motel in
Memphis. He was shot and killed while standing on the motel's
second floor balcony.
A little more than two months after King's death, on June 8,
1968, Ray was captured at London's Heathrow Airport while trying
to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the
name of Ramon George Sneyd. Another passport Ray carried with a
second name was sighted and made him look suspicious. Ray was
quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King's murder,
confessing to the assassination on March 10, 1969, (though he
recanted this confession three days later) and was sentenced to
99 years in prison. On the advice of his attorney Percy Foreman,
Ray took a guilty plea to avoid a trial conviction and therefore
the possibility of receiving the death penalty.
Ray later fired Foreman as his attorney (from then on derisively
calling him "Percy Fourflusher") claiming that a man he met in
Montreal, using the alias "Raoul" had been deeply involved, as
was his brother Johnny, but not himself. He further asserted
that although he didn't "personally shoot Dr. King," he may have
been "partially responsible without knowing it," hinting at a
conspiracy. He spent the remainder of his life attempting
(unsuccessfully) to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the
trial he never had.
On June 11, 1977, Ray made his second appearance, this time as
the 351st entry, on the FBI Most Wanted Fugitives list. He and
six other convicts had just escaped from Brushy Mountain State
Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee on June 10, 1977. They were
recaptured on June 13, three days later, and returned to prison.
One more year was added to his previous sentence to total 100
years. Shortly after, Ray testified that he did not shoot King
to the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
In 1997, King's son Dexter met with Ray, and publicly supported
his efforts to obtain a retrial. Loyd Jowers, a restaurant owner
in Memphis, was brought to civil court and sued as being part of
a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King. Jowers was found
liable, and the King family was awarded $100 in restitution to
show that they were not pursuing the case for financial gain.
Dr. William Pepper, a friend of King in the last year of his
life, represented Ray in a televised mock trial in an attempt to
get Ray the trial he never had. Pepper then represented the King
family in a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers. The
King family does not believe Ray had anything to do with the
murder of Martin Luther King. If Ray was truly guilty, as
supported by the eye-witnesses and physical evidence collected,
and his immediate flight out of the U.S. using an alias name, he
had the last laugh. Ray told his wife, Anna (Sandhu) Ray, who
thought he was innocent, that he had killed King and threatened
to kill her. In discussing the events surrounding King's death,
Ray admitted his guilt with the statement: "Yeah, I killed him.
But what if I did; I never got a trial."
Ray died in prison at the age of 70 from complications related
to kidney disease caused by hepatitis C, probably contracted as
a result of a blood transfusion given after a stabbing while at
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. It was also confirmed in the
autopsy that he died of liver failure. Ray is survived by seven
brothers and sisters. His brother, Jerry Ray, told CNN that his
brother didn't want to be buried or have his final resting place
in the United States because of "the way the government has
treated him." Ray was cremated and his ashes flown to Ireland,
home of his family's ancestors.
In 2000, an 18-month investigation by the Justice Department
rejected allegations that conspirators aided or framed Ray in
the murder of King, and recommended against any further
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
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' unsavoury 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
behaviour, 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
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
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.
Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
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 non-violent 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. Favourite 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 rumours 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.
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This web page was last updated on:
24 December, 2008