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Decision to reopen King case opens Pandora's box for nation

Pierre Thomas

By Pierre Thomas
CNN Justice Correspondent

September 11, 1998
Web posted at: 10:01 a.m. EDT (1401 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thirty years after Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot in Memphis, the nation's wound has never completely healed.

For many Americans, it may never heal as long as one essential question remains unresolved: Did James Earl Ray act alone in killing King?

The scene of the shooting at the Memphis motel, April 4, 1968   

"We hope this review will provide answers to new questions that have been raised about a tragedy that still haunts the nation," Attorney General Janet Reno wrote in announcing a new Justice Department probe into King's assassination.

The recent decision to reopen the case is, of course, pivotal and full of potential, good and bad.

Although the new probe will be limited in scope, Justice officials privately acknowledge they have opened a Pandora's box, full of attitudes and events the nation remains uncomfortable dealing with.

A decade's defining moments

To understand the importance of the decision to reopen the King case, it's important to understand its context.

Justice officials were well aware of the significance and risks of reopening such a culturally defining case.

King's assassination, along with those of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were seared into the minds and hearts of millions. Hopes and dreams for many were tied to these men. Some say America's innocence died with them.

The sharp pain of April 4, 1968 may seem distant now, but as word of King's death spread, the frustration of angry blacks erupted in the streets with riots in more than 100 cities.

King's assassination became symbolic of the painful tulmultuous days of the 1960s, as the country wrestled with the divisive issues of race and equality.

Ray pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. But he soon recanted and spent the rest of his life trying to get a new trial.

Ever since, suspicions have lingered about the circumstances of King's death, and the singular conviction of Ray.

A family's suspicions

One need look no further than King's own family to find such suspicions.

Law enforcement sources tell CNN the Justice Department has no reason to believe Ray did not pull the trigger of the gun that killed King. But Reno concluded a series of questions raised by King's family should not be ignored.

Some King family members have come to accept Ray's assertion of innocence and suggestions of a wider conspiracy, though Ray never offered much evidence to support his claim.

Dexter King, one of the late civil rights leader's sons, came face to face with these doubts in a direct encounter with Ray in 1997.

"Did you kill my father?" Dexter King asked.

"No, I didn't. No," Ray responded.

"I believe you and my family believes you," King said.

King to Ray: "Did you kill my father?" King and Ray
The question
(196K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
The reaction
(672K/14 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Coretta Scott King explained her doubts about the full story of her husband's death after asking President Clinton to intervene last spring.

"It's difficult for me to appreciate the fact that one lone person could engineer what he did in terms of his escape," she said.

What kind of justice to serve, 30 years later?

A number of prior investigations concluded Ray killed King, including one recently conducted by the Memphis District Attorney's office and another by House Select Committee on Assassinations some 20 years earlier.

Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), who chaired that House committee, applauded Reno's decision to reopen the investigation. He noted that his committee, while finding Ray had been the triggerman, concluded that circumstantial evidence suggested Ray's action was "the result of a conspiracy."

The King family with the coffin   

But if other suspects are identified as part of a wider conspiracy, what if anything can be done to them? There are no easy answers.

In reopening the investigation, Reno acknowledged that "federal prosecutions may be barred because the relevant statute of limitations have expired" on most civil rights charges.

However, Justice officials privately say the department is not foreclosing prosecutions if crimes are uncovered. The department would study prosecutorial options, if conspirators were uncovered.

Trying not to make things worse

To underscore the Justice Department's aggressive stance, officials pointed out the investigation will be overseen by Barry Kowalski, who successfully prosecuted the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King.

Still, some observers doubt whether any arm of the federal government would truly pursue the conspiracy allegations, as they suspect the federal government, particularly the FBI, may have played some role in King's death.

Conspiracy theorists point to the FBI's surveillance of King. Though the FBI and other governmental officials have denied any role in King's death, Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh determined the FBI will not be involved in the new probe.

Polling data has consistently shown a divide on how blacks and whites view issues of race. Evidence of a King-related conspiracy, particularly one that is racially motivated, certainly would not narrow that gap.

As it moves to confront an enduring legacy of pain and doubt, the Justice Department is moving cautiously onto unsettling ground with its decision to reopen the case.

Perhaps most unsettling is the possibility that no matter what the new investigation yields -- possibly a consipriacy, or perhaps nothing new -- the results may still not salve this wound for the nation.

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