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Sources: Tests fail to rule out King assassination rifle

June 13, 1997
Web posted at: 10:31 a.m. EDT (1031 GMT)
Ray photo

MEMPHIS, Tennessee (CNN) -- Defense lawyers for James Earl Ray have requested a second test-firing of the rifle believed to have killed Martin Luther King Jr., sources citing a sealed affidavit told CNN.

The defense made its request after testing last month failed to rule out the rifle as the murder weapon, the sources said. The results of those tests were to be released June 18, but could now be delayed.

Defense attorney William Pepper, contacted by phone Thursday, said the defense request does not mean the test results are inconclusive.

"The process is still going on, so there are no conclusions," he said, adding that he could not comment further due to a gag order on the case.

According to sources, the defense's lead firearms investigator, Robert Hathaway, asked in an affidavit signed June 6 to conduct another round of tests on the rifle.

Hathaway says a "misunderstanding" led to inadequate cleaning of the rifle during the court-ordered tests in Rhode Island. The tests are aimed at determining whether a bullet taken from King's body was fired from the rifle.

The gun was found with Ray's fingerprints on it near the assassination site on April 4, 1968.

A Memphis judge gave the defense permission to conduct the test last month. There was no provision for additional testing.

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

Because of the confession, Ray never went to trial and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Ray, 69, is dying of liver cancer and is seeking to have his case re-opened. He is supported in his efforts by King's family.

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