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Tests finished on rifle tied to King assassination

bullets In this story: May 22, 1997
Web posted at: 9:40 p.m. EDT (0140 GMT)

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- A team of experts who tested the rifle believed to have been used to kill Martin Luther King Jr. said Thursday they now have a pretty good idea if the gun killed the prominent civil rights leader.

But criminalist Robert Hathaway said the results will not be released to the public for at least two weeks.


The experts were hired by the defense to determine whether the bullet taken from King's body was fired from the Remington rifle linked to his assassination at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

James Earl Ray confessed in 1969 to killing King, but later recanted his story. Ray contends that he gave the rifle to an unknown man the night before the murder and never saw it again.

Although his fingerprints were found on the rifle, it was never proven to be the murder weapon. Because he confessed, Ray did not go to trial, and is currently serving a 99-year sentence.

Now 69 and dying of liver disease, Ray has tried for years to have his case re-opened. He is supported in his efforts by King's family.

Bullets studied under electron microscope

Ray's attorney, William Pepper, says that if the tests prove that the fatal bullet was not fired by that rifle, the court may be persuaded to grant Ray a trial.

The bullet analysis was the second phase of a probe that began last week when the rifle was test-fired at a crime lab at the University of Rhode Island.

The results of those tests are being compared with analysis of the bullets from a powerful electron scanning microscope this week at CamScan USA, located in a Pittsburgh suburb.


The experts believe that between the two sets of tests they have determined conclusively whether the rifle is the murder weapon.

They are preparing a report for Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown in Memphis, Tennessee. Brown, in turn, will give the report to the lawyers in the case. The findings are expected to be made public in the next few weeks.

Prosecutor opposes new trial

Under Tennessee law, a case can be re-opened if there is a reasonable possibility that technology that did not exist at the time of a crime may be able to prove a person's innocence.

Prosecutor John Campbell says he will oppose a new trial to Ray regardless of what the experts conclude.

"It was probably the weakest piece of evidence, since it was never matched back, anyway," Campbell says. "So, legally, he's not entitled to a new trial unless that in and of itself would prove that he was innocent. And since it won't, I still feel like a new trial is unnecessary and unwarranted."

Correspondent Gary Tuchman and Reuters contributed to this report.


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