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Testing begins on alleged King assassination rifle


May 14, 1997
Web posted at: 12:49 p.m. EDT (1649 GMT)

KINGSTON, Rhode Island (CNN) -- A forensic arms examiner said Wednesday he and other experts would fire a .30-06 rifle owned by James Earl Ray Wednesday in an effort to determine if it killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The gun was removed from a padlocked black case marked "evidence," and a bullet removed from King's body was displayed in a clear plastic container at the University of Rhode Island crime lab. The test marked the first time the weapon and bullet have been seen in public in nearly 20 years.

Robert A. Hathaway, a criminalist with the University of Rhode Island, said the rifle would be fired as many as 18 times. Using a powerful scanning electron microscope, markings on the bullet from King's body will be compared with markings on the test bullets. A match would suggest the bullet came from Ray's gun.

The test bullets -- which will be fired over the next three days -- will be taken to Pennsylvania next week for examination, said Hathaway. He said the results would be sealed pending a court hearing in Memphis.

The fingerprints of Ray, who confessed to killing King and went straight to prison without a trial, were found on the weapon, which Ray admitted buying days before the King assassination. Ray later recanted his confession, and his attorneys contend he did not pull the trigger.


Legal consequences unclear

Ray, who has terminal liver disease, has told Dexter King, the son of Martin Luther King, that he did not kill his father. Ray's attorneys hope to use a Tennessee law allowing the introduction of new scientific evidence to reopen the King case and win a new trial for Ray.

"This is important but it isn't the be all and end all," said Jack McNeil, one of Ray's attorneys. "If there are no marks of significance that match, fine. But even if you have a situation where there were similar markings on the assassination bullet and the test bullet, the fact remains that that from the beginning James Earl Ray has contended he was not there."


Prosecutor John Campbell, who also will witness the tests, said he doubts the bullet can be matched and would oppose holding a new trial for Ray. Experts used by Congress could not match the test bullets fired by the gun, he said.

"To say now we will be able to get results would surprise me," he said.

Campbell said he was unsure what legal consequences, if any, the tests results would have. "We'll just have to wait and see," he said.

Tests done on the rifle by the FBI and later by Congress showed that the bullet that killed King did not conclusively match the weapon found in a recessed doorway near the Lorraine Motel where King was shot.

At that time examiners said the gun did not leave unique marks or striations on bullets.


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