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New tests on King rifle begin


May 14, 1997
Web posted at: 7:41 a.m. EDT (1141 GMT)

From Correspondent Gary Tuchman

KINGSTON, Rhode Island (CNN) -- Beginning Wednesday, defense attorneys for James Earl Ray hope they can prove once and for all he was not the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.

Permission has finally been given to have Ray's .30-06 Remington rifle tested in an effort to prove it wasn't the murder weapon. It's the first step towards a trial for Ray, who went straight to prison in 1969 after confessing to King's murder.

Ray later recanted his confession and now says he was framed.

To test that theory, a University of Rhode Island criminalist selected by Ray's defense attorney will fire the rifle into a special water tank for three days beginning Wednesday. The bullets shot into the tank will be compared with bullet fragments found in the civil rights leader's body.


"We're going to be looking for fine marks that are left on the test projectile and evidence projectile," criminalist Robert Hathaway said.

A Tennessee judge ruled that up to 18 samples can be taken from Ray's gun. It's all part of the defense effort to rule out the gun as the murder weapon in order to get the ailing prisoner the trial he never had.

Waiting for transplant

King's family and other civil rights leaders have long feared Ray will take the truth to the grave with him unless a trial is held. Ray, 68, has terminal liver disease and is in need of a transplant.

King's son, Dexter, has been vocal in his feelings that Ray, despite his initial confession, is really a patsy.

"Having met with James Earl Ray, and even before, I believe and my family believes, that this man is innocent," Dexter King said.

Other tests have come up empty


Tennessee prosecutors can also test the rifle, but won't need to if the defense testing does not positively rule out the weapon. Other testing in the past has not ruled out the Remington rifle.

"Actually, the firearm's identification in this case has been examined by a number of experts before, by a number of experts selected by Congress, a number of independent experts. Nothing new has been developed," said Tennessee prosecutor John Campbell.

But the defense criminalist says a relatively new scanning electron microscope could make a difference this time.

"We've assured the King family we will give it our best efforts to review the case and resolve it for their family," Hathaway said.

Confession led straight to prison

The last time James Earl Ray's rifle was fired was in 1978, when Congress reviewed King's murder. The time before that, prosecutors say, was the day King was killed by Ray -- April 4, 1968.


The rifle was found a few hundred feet from the Memphis motel where King was murdered. It had Ray's fingerprints on it, and Ray admitted buying the rifle and bringing it to Memphis. He never stood trial because of his guilty plea.

Ray recanted his confession later. He now contends the plea was coerced, and the rifle with his fingerprints on it planted near the crime scene

Conspiracy theorists have argued for years that Ray, a bungling, petty criminal, could not have pulled off the assassination alone. And their theories, some of which include allegations of government wrongdoing, often note that authorities have never proven that Ray's gun was the murder weapon.

Defense attorneys see this new test as a major step in trying to get Ray out of prison after nearly three decades.


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