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Autopsy confirms Ray died of liver failure

James Earl Ray  
April 24, 1998
Web posted at: 6:04 p.m. EDT (2204 GMT)

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- An autopsy Friday confirmed that James Earl Ray, the confessed assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., died from the failure of multiple internal organs due to cirrhosis of the liver, which was caused by a chronic hepatitis infection.

Ray, who confessed to King's murder, then recanted, had sought a trial for nearly 30 years for the 1968 assassination of the civil rights leader. He died Thursday at the age of 70 from kidney failure and complications from liver disease that had repeatedly sent him to prison hospitals over the past 16 months.

Tennessee state law requires an autopsy for any inmate who dies in custody.

Dr. Bruce Levy gives a statement on the cause of death for James Earl Ray
icon 371K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

Dr. Bruce Levy, Nashville's chief medical examiner, said that the autopsy, which lasted about 90 minutes, was routine and the findings "consistent with what we expected based on Ray's medical history."

More tests were planned to determine what type of hepatitis Ray had, Levy said, potentially allowing examiners to speculate on where and when he might have contracted the disease.

There are few treatments for hepatitis, Levy noted. "You have to treat the symptoms and allow the disease to follow its course."

King family invited to funeral

Although funeral arrangements were pending, King's family has been invited to a private memorial service for Ray, Ray's brother Jerry Ray said Friday. Within the past two years, the King family had joined the effort to win Ray a trial, saying they believed there was still a hidden conspiracy surrounding the civil rights leader's death.

There was no immediate word on whether the King family would attend the memorial service, being arranged by Ray attorney William Pepper.

But King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and other family members said Thursday they were saddened by Ray's death and the fact that the country "will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray's trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination."

Ray was to be cremated and his ashes flown to Ireland, home of his family's ancestors.

Jerry Ray
Jerry Ray  

Ray's survivors include seven brothers and sisters. Jerry Ray told CNN on Friday that his brother didn't want to be buried or have his final resting place in the United States, because of "the way the government has treated him." ( icon 136 K/11 sec. AIFF or WAV sound )

Ray family had autopsy observer

The autopsy, performed by Levy, was observed by Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh.

Wecht, known for making controversial comments on several high-profile deaths -- including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- attended the autopsy at the request of Ray's family and Pepper.

Wecht said Ray died of hepatitis and that an autopsy may seem unnecessary. But Ray's family wants to know what type of hepatitis it was, when Ray got it and whether he received appropriate medical treatment.

Further autopsy results also may determine whether Ray could have successfully undergone a liver transplant, "which would have been available for him in Pittsburgh, but Tennessee authorities said no," Wecht said Thursday.

Prior to the autopsy, Levy told CNN he appreciated "the opportunity for another independent forensic pathologist to come in and to hopefully put to bed any rumors about any kind of controversy or conspiracy about Mr. Ray's death."


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