[NOTE: All references to the transcript of James Earl Ray's guilty plea hearing are noted with a “T” followed by the page number i.e. T27 for page 27 of the transcript.]
On March 10, 1969, lifelong petty criminal and recent prison escapee, James Earl Ray, pled guilty to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But despite entering this plea, Ray never admitted to shooting Dr. King and maintained until the day he died that he had been manipulated and set-up for the assassination. As I hope to show, the facts support his contention. There is not a scrap of hard forensic evidence or even reliable eyewitness testimony to establish guilt on his part. And the evidence that exists is, in fact, exculpatory. I will detail in an upcoming post the reasons why he entered a guilty plea when he so clearly was not the assassin. But for now I wish to concentrate on the evidence alluded to at the guilty plea hearing that was said to prove his guilt, and the evidence not offered in court that actually proves the opposite.
As Shelby County District Attorney Philip M. Canale explained to the jury, “It is incumbent upon the State in a plea of guilty to murder in the first degree to put on certain proof for your consideration. We have to put on proof of what we lawyers call the proof of the corpus delicti which is the body of the crime” (T12) I can only begin to imagine how Ray must have felt sitting through what followed Canale's opening remarks, realising how flimsy the case against him really was, and how utterly unconvincing and worthless was the State's so-called “proof”. Because it is without doubt that nothing the prosecution presented at the hearing came anywhere close to proving that “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by James Earl Ray and James Earl Ray alone, not in concert with anyone” as Canale insisted. (T14)
The prosecution offered the testimony of five witnesses whom Canale told the jury would “fill you in on certain important aspects of the case.” (T12) The first of these was Reverend Samuel B. Kyles, a friend of Dr. King who was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel with him at the moment he was shot. Having turned his back to walk away, Kyles did not see King as he was struck and mistook the sound of the shot for a car backfiring. (T32) He did not have any personal knowledge of the origin of the shot but mentioned looking towards the front of the rooming house opposite “because there were bushes and things.” (T35) Next up was King's attorney Chauncy Eskridge who was also at the Lorraine that evening. Asked, “did you look back over towards a rooming house there shown on the mock-up?” Eskridge replied, “I did.” (T40) He was not asked and did not explain why. Neither Eskridge nor Kyles saw any movement in the area of the rooming house.
The third witness was Shelby County Medical Examiner Dr. Jerry T. Francisco who performed the autopsy. Dr. Francisco testified that the cause of death was “A gunshot wound to the cervical and thoracic spinal cord” and identified for the court the bullet that was removed from Dr. King's body. (T44-45) He also testified that the angle of the incoming bullet was “from above downward” (T45) and claimed the wound was consistent with a shot from the rooming house. (T46) However, Dr. Francisco gave no indication that he considered Dr. King's posture at the time the shot was fired when, according to Eskridge, King was leaning over the balcony talking to people in the parking lot below. (T40) Also not mentioned in his testimony, but reported by the HSCA 11 years later, is that Dr. Francisco did not dissect the path of the bullet as he should have done. (HSCA report, p. 289)
Dr. Francisco was followed on the stand by Memphis Police Inspector N.E. Zachary who committed perjury by falsely swearing to being the officer who found a bundle of evidence in the doorway to Canipe's Amusement Company (next door to the rooming house) minutes after the assassination. (T49) In fact, the bundle was first observed by Lieutenant Judson E. Ghormley who called it in and arranged for an officer to guard the evidence. (see April 16, 1968 statement of J.E. Ghormley) As Zachary described it, the “package rolled up in a bedspread...consisted of a blue briefcase and a Browning pasteboard box containing a rifle.” (T49) He further testified to turning the rifle, the briefcase, and it's various contents over to the FBI on 10:00 PM that night—all except for a T-shirt and shorts. (T52) He did not explain why he kept these two items.
Last up was FBI Special Agent Robert G. Jensen who testified to receiving the bundle from Zachary. (T55) He further testified to ordering his agents to make a canvass of hotels and motels in Shelby County and finding a registration card at the Rebel Motel bearing the name Eric S. Galt (one of Ray's aliases); tracking the recovered rifle to Aero Marine Supply Company in Birmingham, Alabama; recovering a white Ford Mustang that was abandoned in Atlanta, Georgia; and tracing other items from the suitcase—including the T-shirt and shorts Zachary said he did not turn over— to Los Angeles. Finally, Jensen was asked, “Did the investigation made by the FBI culminate in the arrest of James Earl Ray?” to which he replied, “Yes it did.” (T59) Canale's executive assistant Robert Dwyer then informed the court, “That is all the proof the state cares to offer at this time.”
And with that, with none of facts of the crime established, and nothing about Ray's guilt even close to proven, the witness testimony came to a pitiful end.
Following a short recess, assistant James W. Beasley began to narrate “a stipulation of the facts and evidence that the State would prove in addition to the testimony that you heretofore heard in the trial of this case.” (T60) Beasley's narrative runs for 40 pages and is brimming over with trivialities that have no bearing on whether or not Ray killed King. As Harold Weisberg noted, Beasley was trying to make it appear as if a proper, thorough investigation had been conducted and to make the evidence against Ray seem stronger than it actually was. Therefore, in what follows, I have ignored the numerous irrelevancies that require and deserve no response and concentrated solely on the salient points of the State's case.
Ray at the Rooming House
According to Beasley, the State could show through the testimony of Bessie Brewer, manager of the rooming house, that at around 3:00 PM Ray rented room 5-B under the name of John Willard. On this point the State is undoubtedly correct and Ray never denied it. He claimed, however, that he rented the room at the request of the man whom he believed set him up for the assassination; a man he knew only as “Raoul”. Beasley made sure to note that Ray had rejected the first room he was offered, a room on the south side of the building, in favour of a room on the north side, facing the Lorraine Motel. (T61-62) Thus the implication is made that Ray was specifically looking for a room with a view of Dr. King's room at the Lorraine. But as Brewer said in her April 4, 1968 interview, Ray didn't ask for a room on the north side or check the view from the window before accepting 5-B, he just “looked in” and “said that was fine.” Ray's reason for rejecting room 8, according to Brewer, was that “he didn't need the stove and the refrigerator. He just needed a sleeping room” This is what Ray always maintained was his reason for rejecting what he called a “housekeeping room”, adding that this type of room is “for couples, I believe. And, uh, they're usually roach-infested...” (HSCA MLK Vol. 9, p. 41)
To further support the notion that Ray was spying on Dr. King from room 5-B, Beasley claimed that after the shooting, when police searched the rooming house, they found that a chest of drawers had been moved away from the window and a wooden chair had been placed in front of it. Beasley told the jury that “You could sit in this chair and...could see the Lorraine Motel.” (T68) Beasley's claim is contradicted by the April 4, 1968, Homicide Officers Report which states, “...it was noted by sitting in the chair at this angle the spot where Dr. King was standing was not visible but you must lean partially out the window to see the spot.” So a view of King's room was not possible from 5-B unless one hangs half out of the window! Beasley also leaves out the inconvenient fact that neither the chest of drawers nor the chair had Ray's fingerprints on them. In fact, Ray's fingerprints were not found anywhere in the rooming house. (HSCA MLK Vol. 13, p. 112) This quite obviously does not support the claim that he was up there moving furniture around. Conversely, it appears to support Ray's account in which he claimed that the total amount of time he spent in the rooming house was around 15 minutes. (see HSCA MLK Vol. 9, p. 15)
In discussing the sniper's alleged position in the rooming house bathroom, the State made a number of highly dubious and clearly fallacious claims. According to Beasley, when homicide officers first searched the bathroom, they “found marks in the bottom of the tub consistent with shoe or scuff marks.” They discovered that the window was open and a small wire-mesh screen had been “pushed off” and found lying on the ground outside. And Inspector Zachary observed a “fresh indentation” on the old wooden window sill. Beasley further claimed that “the proof would show through expert testimony that the markings on this sill were consistent with the machine markings as reflected on the barrel of the 30.06 rifle” found in the doorway of Canipe's. (T69) From this the State made its case that Ray had stood in the tub, pushed the screen off with his rifle, rested the barrel on the window sill. and fired the fatal shot. For 45 years this scenario has been accepted uncritically by journalists and historians the world over and actively promoted by establishment-friendly authors like Gerald Posner, Gerold Frank, and Hampton Sides. And yet the evidence disproves it.
Despite the importance the State placed upon them, the scuff marks in the tub are of no value whatsoever in establishing Ray's guilt or innocence. Assuming they really were caused by shoes, there is no way of knowing who's shoes made them or when they were made. In fact, the HSCA admitted that it was “unable to eliminate the alternative possibility that these marks, apparently made by someone wearing shoes, were left by police officers attempting to check possible shooting angles immediately after the assassination.” (HSCA report, p. 292) Similarly, it was never established when the wire-mesh screen had actually become detached from the window frame of that run-down old flophouse. And the claim that it was pushed off with the rifle is contradicted by the FBI examination which found that “No aluminum, screen-type scratches, paint, wood or other foreign material was found on the muzzle or side of the barrel” of the rifle. (April 17, 1968, FBI Lab Report) As to Beasley's claim that “expert testimony” would show that the dent in the window sill was made by the barrel of the rifle, the FBI lab reports prove he was blowing smoke. After it was removed, examination found that “insufficient marks for identification were left on the board due to the physical nature of the wood.” And, totally undermining the notion that a rifle was fired whilst rested on the sill, “No gunpowder or gunpowder residues were found on the Q71 board.” (April 11, 1968, FBI Lab Report) Beasley's claim, then, was a deliberate falsehood; one he knew he could get away with because there was to be no trial, no cross-examination, and no need to ever produce the proof he promised.
In 1974, world-renowned forensics expert and Professor of Criminalistics, Herbert L. Macdonell, was contacted by Ray's defense team and asked to examine the physical evidence and testify at Ray's evidentiary hearing. According to Harold Weisberg, who was the defense team's sole investigator, MacDonell “erupted with laughter” when he saw the dent on the sill because he immediately recognized the impossibility of the State's allegation. MacDonell testified that it was not possible “to determine even the class of the object that made that indentation, let alone a specific or positive identity of that object.” (Click HERE for the complete transcript of MacDonnel's testimony) He further stated that the “only portion of the barrel that would be capable of making such a clean, fine cut...would have to be the muzzle”. But because of where that dent was, if the rifle was fired with the muzzle resting in that dent, “It would have torn up the windowsill.” Not only that but, as these pictures of MacDonell show, with the rifle rested in that dent, the butt would be up against the wall so the rifleman himself would have to be partially inside the wall!:
This is not the only seeming impossibility with the State's shooting scenario. In fact, the very idea that a sniper could have stood in the bath tub and fired the fatal shot is unfeasible. A team from Paris-Match magazine visited the rooming house bathroom in April, 1968, and attempted to simulate the sniper's supposed position.
What they found was that the old-fashioned bath tub had a steeply slanting back which made it impossible for the gunman to stand in the tub and aim a rifle down on the Lorraine motel balcony. The best their stand-in could manage was to stand precariously on the slippery edge of the tub and this put him up so high that he had to raise the window. This meant that he would be fully exposed to anyone on the street below and would have had to have turned his head almost on its side; making aiming more difficult. But more importantly, the Homicide Officers Report reveals that when police searched the bathroom they found that the window was only raised by “3 and 7/8 inches from the bottom sill.” Which, as I said before, means that the State's scenario is ostensibly impossible.
The Bundle and the Ballistics
As noted above, very shortly after Dr. King was shot, a bundle of evidence was found dumped in the doorway to Canipe's Amusement Company. This bundle contained much evidence implicating Ray— including a personal radio from Missouri State Penitentiary with his prison ID number engraved on it—and most importantly it contained the Remington Gamemaster 30.06 pump action rifle alleged by the State to be the murder weapon. That Ray purchased the weapon is not in question. However, as with the renting of the room, Ray claimed that he did so on the orders of a man named “Raoul”. Interestingly, fingerprint experts for the HSCA disagreed about whether or not Ray's prints were found on the rifle. The FBI had discovered and lifted only one identifiable fingerprint on the rifle and one other on the telescopic sight. Two of the HSCA experts, Ray H. Holbrook and Darrell D. Linville, agreed that the print on the scope belonged to Ray but could not positively identify the print on the rifle. (HSCA MLK Vol. 13, p. 117) The third expert, Vincent J. Scalice, positively identified the print on the rifle as Ray's but not the print on the telescopic sight. (Ibid, p. 113)
In any case, what really matters is not whether or not Ray's prints were on the rifle, but whether or not that rifle was the actual murder weapon. Beasley told the jury that “The death slug removed from the body contained land and groove impressions and direction of twist consistent with those that were in the barrel of this rifle.” (T96) Anyone who is remotely familiar with ballistics will understand that Beasley's words are largely meaningless. As Herbert MacDonell explained in his 1974 testimony, Beasley “is referring to class characteristics. In other words, like a right shoe is a right shoe and six lands and grooves to the right are six lands and grooves to the right...It doesn't really say anything...” What the State did not and could not offer was proof that the death slug was fired from the rifle Ray purchased to the exclusion of all other rifles. When FBI Agent Robert Frazier examined the ballistics evidence, he reported that “it was not possible to determine whether or not Q64 was fired from the Q2 rifle.” This he blamed on the condition of the bullet, writing, “The Q64 bullet has been distorted due to mutilation and insufficient marks for identification remain on this bullet.” (April 17, 1968, FBI Lab Report)
Herbert MacDonell did not agree with Frazier's assessment. He testified, “I feel there is sufficient detail there that with a good comparison microscope and several test-firings that an identification ought to be possible. I have seen several fineline striations in grooves No. 1 and 5, and the mutilation to the projectile is negligible from the standpoint of firearms identification. It's mushroomed, but it's not distorted. You have six lands and grooves to work with, not just one fragment. I believe an identification is possible, or could be made.” In 1979 the HSCA essentially shifted blame for the non-identification from the bullet to the rifle itself. The firearms panel reported that when test bullets “were compared microscopically, the panel found so much variation among the individual identifying characteristics that most could not be identified with each other. The panel concludes that the Q2 rifle inconsistently engraves individual identifying characteristics on successively fired bullets.” (HSCA MLK Vol. 13, p. 63-64)
In 1994 Ray's lawyer, William Pepper, sought further testing of the rifle and Judge Joe B. Brown granted his request. Frustratingly, the results were once again inconclusive. However, as Judge Brown testified at the 1999 King V. Jowers civil trial, 12 of the 18 test bullets showed a similar “unusual characteristic”, in the form of a bump on the surface, that Brown (himself a ballistics expert) felt was a result of “shattering in the tool” used to make the barrel. Inspecting the barrel, Brown said that it was “absolutely filthy” with jacket powder and believed that it was this build-up that was causing the inconclusive results. He testified, “Now, because this weapon was not cleaned, what happened was that the filing material was being blown out of this flaw. So one of these bullets would have a gross reflection of this flaw. The next shot through it would be somewhat less impressed because of the filing that had filled up this defect. The third one would have even less of an impression. Then the filing would get blown out. The next bullets through would not show it to a gross extent. So you've got twelve bullets with the same common characteristic, that is, this raised area on the surface of the bullet...that was not found on the corresponding portion of the bullet removed from Dr. King.” (13th Juror: The Official Transcript of the Martin Luther King Conspiracy Trial, pgs. 235-236)
To solve the problem, Brown suggested that the rifle be cleaned with a chemical solution that would remove the filings without harming the barrel. At that point, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals had him removed from the case on the grounds that he had lost his objectivity. Clearly the State of Tennessee was disturbed by the fact that the results of this last round of testing were around 66% consistent with the use of a different 30.06 rifle in the assassination. It is worth noting at this point that, as Herbert MacDonell testified, based on the class characteristics Beasley described, their were millions of rifles in the US that could have fired the death slug.
What may further rule out the rifle in the bundle as the murder weapon is the statement Guy Warren Canipe gave to public defender Hugh Stanton Jr. on February 4, 1969. Canipe, who did not hear the shot fired, claimed that the bundle was dropped “in front of his place of business about 10 minutes when a Deputy Sheriff came up to take charge of them.” As noted above, the first member of the Sheriff's department on the scene was Judson E. Ghormley who said that he arrived at the doorway of Canipe's approximately 2 minutes after the shot was fired. When Harold Weisberg and attorney Jim Lesar retraced his steps, it took them just 45 seconds. (Weisberg, Whoring with History, p. 99) So if there is any truth at all to Canipe's statement, since it is impossible for the Remington Gamemaster to have been in two places at once, that rifle simply could not have been used to shoot Dr. King.
The obvious question that Beasley did not seek to answer is why Ray would have dumped that bundle full of incriminating evidence at the scene of the crime. Memphis police speculated that Ray was on his way to his white Ford Mustang when he was spooked by the sight of a police cruiser parked in front of the fire station. The HSCA borrowed this idea for its report, stating, “...an official police cruiser parked in the fire station parking lot protruded onto the sidewalk on the east side of South Main Street and would have been clearly visible to Ray as he fled from the rooming house. The committee believe that Ray threw the bundle of evidence down in a moment of panic, probably triggered by his seeing police activity or the police vehicle.” (HSCA report, p. 331) The problem with this theory is that the driver of that police cruiser, Emmett Douglass insisted that he was parked approximately 60 feet back from the pavement where he would not have been visible to Ray. (Pepper, Orders to Kill, p. 214) Additionally, on April 4, 1968, there was a large hedge that ran along the edge of the fire station driveway, extending out to the sidewalk, that would have blocked Ray's view of a car parked where the HSCA claimed it was. This hedge was apparently cut down the following morning. (Ibid, p. 363)
White Mustangs and Ray's Alibi
The State has always maintained that after firing the shot, Ray exited the rooming house, dropped the bundle, climbed into his white Ford Mustang, which they claimed was parked a few feet south of Canipe's, and quickly made his getaway. As proof of this getaway, Beasley cited the statements of Guy Warren Canipe and two customers who were in his store at the time; Bernell Finley and Julius Graham. All three heard the bundle drop, saw a white man walking south and, moments later, saw “a white Mustang pull from the curb” and “head north on Main Street with one occupant.” (T65) Beasley did not mention that none of the witnesses saw whether or not the man who dropped the bundle was the same man who drove off in the white Mustang. He also kept hidden the fact that there were actually two white Mustangs parked on Main Street that afternoon and one of them was observed leaving the scene right around the time Ray said he left the rooming house to get his tire fixed.
There is no doubt that one of the Mustang's was parked south of Canipes because it was seen there by a number of witnesses including Elizabeth Copeland and Peggy Hurley. (T63) But Ray always insisted that he parked his Mustang directly in front of Jim's Grill, located underneath the rooming house. Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim's Grill, confirmed in his April 7, 1968, statement to Memphis police that there was indeed a white Mustang with out-of-state license plates parked directly in front of the grill that afternoon. According to Ray, the car was parked in that spot until around 5:45 PM when he “eased the Mustang north onto Main Street” and drove a few blocks to an intersection “where there were two or three service stations.” He pulled into the nearest one and asked the attendant if he could repair the tire in the trunk but was told it was too busy. According to Ray, he filled up with gas and made his way back towards the rooming house but as he approached the area he spotted a police car seemingly blocking off the intersection. Being an escaped convict who was in town to conduct a gun deal, Ray said he quickly turned off and made his way out of downtown Memphis. A few minutes later, Ray claimed, he heard on the car radio that Dr. King had been shot. (See Ray, Who Killed Martin Luther King?, p. 96)
Two potentially important witnesses gave statements to the FBI on April 25, 1968, that corroborate important details of Ray's story. Ray Hendrix and William Reed ate dinner at Jim's Grill and left at approximately 5:30 PM. As they walked outside, Hendrix realised that he had forgotten his jacket and went back inside the grill to retrieve it. While he did so, Reed stood outside checking out the Mustang that was parked there which, he noted, was “an off white color”—Ray's Mustang was, in fact, a very pale yellow called “spring Time Yellow”. When Hendrix reappeared, the two men walked north along Main Street until they came to the corner of Main and Vance. Just as they were about to cross the street, according to Hendrix, “Bill Reed pulled him back to the curb because the car was turning the corner.” This car, he said, was a white Mustang with a lone male driver that Reed told him “was the Mustang that was parked in front of Jim's Grill..” (13th Juror, p. 351-352) Hendrix and Reed, then, saw a car matching Ray's, with a single male occupant, leaving the scene around the same time Ray said he left, and heading in the same direction Ray said he was headed in. Which means that they provide partial corroboration for Ray's alibi and possible evidence of his innocence. Unbelievably, these witness statements went overlooked until attorney William Pepper brought them to light in 1993.
The “Star Witness”
With no forensic evidence of any kind to put Ray in the rooming house bathroom with a rifle in his hands, and no proof that the dropped rifle was the actual murder weapon, the State's case is entirely dependent on a single alleged eyewitness: Charles Quitman Stephens. Stephens lived with his wife Grace in room 6-B which adjoined both the bathroom and the room Ray rented. “At approximately 6 PM”, Beasley stated, “Mr. Stephens heard the shot coming apparently through this wall from the bathroom (indicating). He then got up, went through this room out into the corridor in time to see the left profile of the Defendant as he turned down the passageway which leads to an opening with a stairwell going down to Main Street.” (T65) The way Beasley tells it, there's no ifs, ands, or buts about it; Stephens heard the shot and identified Ray as the fleeing assassin. I'm sure by now the reader will not be surprised to learn that the truth is more than a little different.
Stephens was an alcoholic who, on April 4, 1968, was as drunk as a skunk. As usual. He was so drunk, in fact, that no more than 15 minutes before the assassination his usual cab driver, James McCraw refused to take him anywhere. As McCraw said in a sworn statement to the public defender's office on February 3, 1969, when he arrived at the rooming house he found Stephens lying on his bed in such a drunken condition that he “could not get off the bed.” Memphis police officer Tommy Smith found much the same when he entered the rooming house very shortly after the assassination. As he said in his sworn testimony at the King V. Jowers civil trial, Stephens was “intoxicated” and “leaning up against the door”. Asked if he thought Stephens was in a condition to identify anyone Smith replied, “No, sir. No Way...I didn't think enough of his statement that I took to take him downstairs and take a formal statement from him and so put it in my arrest report that he was intoxicated to the point that there was no sense in bringing him downtown.” (13th Juror, p. 56)
Nevertheless, a few hours later, someone did decide to take Stephens downtown to take a statement from him. At that point, Stephens told police that he would not be able to identify the man if he saw him again because he “didn't get that good a look at him...I just had a glimpse of one side of his face...he wasn't turned around where I could see him.” As if this wasn't damaging enough to the State's claim, when Stephens was interviewed on April 18, 1968, by CBS news correspondent, Bill Stout, and was shown a picture of Ray, the following exchange took place:
STOUT: Mr. Stephens, what do you think of that picture? Does that look like the man?
STEPHENS: Well--[clears throat]--Excuse me—from the glimpse that I—that I got of his profile, it doesn't.
STOUT: It Doesn't?
STEPHENS: Certainly—No, sir, it certainly doesn't. For one thing, he's too heavy. His face is too full. He has too much hair, and his nose is too wide—from the glimpse that, as I said, that I got of his profile. But that definitely, I would say, is not the—the guy. (Orders to Kill, p. 97)
Definitely not the guy.
That's the State's star witness, it's one and only witness, looking at Ray's picture and saying he was “definitely not” the man he saw!
What else needs to be said?
No Case to Answer
Several years ago, retired British Police Detective, Ian Griggs, wrote a book on the JFK assassination titled “No Case to Answer.” As Griggs explained, the phrase “No Case to Answer” is a “loosely legal expression in England...It basically means that despite thorough investigation, insufficient evidence has been obtained to justify taking the case before a court of law.” I submit that this should unquestionably have been recognised as true of the case against James Earl Ray. There is no forensic evidence of any kind implicating Ray; no fingerprints, ballistics or gunshot residues or anything else remotely resembling scientific proof. What the State offered instead was a handful of lies it knew were disproven by the FBI's own analysis. In a very real sense, the entire case rested on a single eyewitness whose own statements exonerated rather than incriminated Ray. The very fact that this utterly fabricated, wholly unsubstantiated case actually made it before a judge is a travesty. The fact that it ended with Ray serving a 99-year sentence while the real killers got off scot-free is a shameful injustice. An injustice that the State of Tennessee needs to own up to once and for all. For, as Martin Luther King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”