Confessed King assassin gets court hearing
February 20, 1997
From Correspondent Brian Cabell
MEMPHIS, Tennessee (CNN) -- Nearly 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by an assassin's bullet, a judge will decide whether James Earl Ray will go to trial for the crime.
Ray, now 68, has never been tried for King's 1968 killing outside Memphis' Lorraine Motel because he confessed shortly after being arrested.
But he recanted just days later and has maintained his innocence from prison ever since. Now Ray's lawyer is demanding a trial on the basis of crucial new evidence.
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown, in a special one-day hearing Thursday, will assess attorney William Pepper's claim that new scientific evidence proves the rifle allegedly used in the slaying could not have fired the fatal round.
Conspiracy theories have long swirled around King's assassination, but the hearing would likely never have come about if not for public pressure from the King family.
"The lack of a satisfactory resolution to questions surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. has been a source of continuing pain and hardship to our family," Dexter King told reporters in Atlanta. "Every effort must be made to determine the truth. ... This can only be accomplished in a court of law."
But Ray's fight with a terminal liver condition may rob the King family and civil rights establishment of the chance to hear his side of the story.
Pepper says an examination with an electron microscope of the bullet that killed King will prove that Ray's rifle was not the source of the fatal gunshot.
Prosecutors, adamant that Ray is guilty, point to evidence other than ballistic findings.
"It wasn't just the rifle that convicted him," prosecutor John Campbell told CNN. "That's just one of the pieces of evidence that was there in 1969."
A 1978 congressional committee looking at a number of high-profile assassinations agreed with prosecutors that Ray was responsible for King's death.
Despite repeated appeals over the years, Ray's legal efforts have come up empty. But he has gained unlikely allies in several black civil rights leaders who doubt the official story.
They argue that a bungling criminal like Ray could not have pulled off the assassination by himself, then elude authorities for weeks as he made his way to Atlanta, Toronto and Europe. Ray was arrested two months after the killing at London's Heathrow Airport.
The frail Ray, often confined to a wheel chair, is expected to remain in a Nashville prison hospital during the hearing. His younger brother, Jerry, is expected to represent his dying sibling in the courtroom.
Ray's condition will not, however, prevent him from making an appearance from prison Friday on "The Montel Williams Show," where he may make a plea for a liver donor to help prolong his life.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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