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James Earl Ray

James Earl Ray, the accused assassin of Dr. Martin Luther Martin Luther King, Jr., is knocMartin Luther King on death’s door with an appeal for justice.

Ray, who is suffering from severe cirrhosis of the liver, recently emerged from a coma after weeks of unconsciousness. Although his health has stabilized, without a liver transplant, he will probably die. Ray is not on the national organ donor list, and strict hospital guidelines would probably prevent his access to a life-saving organ transplant operation. Unless a sympathetic donor designates Ray as the recipient, his chances of procuring the necessary organ are slim at best.

When Ray appeared to be near death, some civil rights activists requested that Ray make a bedside confession to MLK’s killing. Yet others continue to staunchly back Ray’s lawyer, William F. Pepper, who in recent years has made a great deal of headway in uncovering the truth about the assassination, building a documented case for Ray’s innocence — and digging up a conspiratorial trail leading deep into the halls of power.

On February 20, the state court in Memphis will hear Ray’s request for new scientific tests on his 30.06 Remington rifle, which the FBI identified as the murder weapon under controversial circumstances. Although the weapon bears Ray’s fingerprints, it also bears other sets of prints which were never identified. Depending on the outcome, these tests could open the way to an appeal, 27 years into a 99-year sentence that Ray will never live to serve out.

Skeptics of Ray’s claims of innocence often point to his guilty plea in court as proof that he murdered Dr. Martin Luther Martin Luther King, Jr., but the story behind Ray’s plea is a bit more complicated than that. After his extradition from Britain, Ray was confined for eight months in a specially-designed jail cell which was brightly lit 24 hours a day. Guards were present around the clock. Closed-circuit TV cameras monitored him constantly, with multiple microphones providing audio surveillance.

Under these extraordinary conditions, with his physical and mental state deteriorating, Ray’s attorney, Art Hanes, kept him under continuous pressure to enter a guilty plea. Yet Ray, who claimed he was a patsy in a larger conspiracy, insisted on a trial. At the time, author William Bradford Huie was paying Hanes for information and leads for his upcoming book on James Earl Ray, entitled “He Slew the Dreamer.” According to James Earl’s brother Jerry Ray, a trial would put much of this information in the public domain, lowering the value of Huie’s book — hence, the pressure from Hanes for a guilty plea.

Jerry Ray advised James Earl to dump Hanes and contact Percy Foreman, an Texas criminal defense lawyer known as the “Texas Tiger” for his aggressiveness. Ray didn’t like the idea, but Richard J. Ryan, the Memphis lawyer they contacted, said the case was out of his league. So Ray contacted Foreman, and Foreman took his case. Although he promised not to contact any authors until after the trial, Foreman also entered into a contractual obligation with Huie. A few weeks later, he paid a visit to Ray’s former attorney, Art Hanes. Shortly thereafter, on February 13, 1969, Foreman reversed his trial strategy and delivered Ray a letter advising him to plead guilty, with a list of reasons why he should comply.

Ray would have nothing to do with it. He insisted on a trial. Foreman relentlessly insisted that Ray plead guilty, threatening Ray by saying that if the case went to trial, he couldn’t guarantee his best efforts as defense counsel. Ray knew the judge wouldn’t appoint a new counsel so close to his trial date. Fearing that Foreman would throw the trial if he pled innocent, Ray pled guilty as an act of desperation, intending to ditch Foreman immediately and retract his plea. On March 10, 1969, after refuting the idea that there was no conspiracy behind MLK’s death, James Earl Ray pled guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Three days later he hired attorney Ryan and filed a motion to vacate his plea and obtain a trial. On March 31, 1969, as Judge Preston Battle was considering this motion, he literally dropped dead from a heart attack. He was found with his head lying on the papers Ray had filed with the court.

Under these extraordinary circumstances, the motion should have been automatically granted, according to Tennessee law at the time. Yet it was refused, and every petition for relief that Ray has filed since then has been denied. There has been no justice for Ray in this case, and there certainly has been no justice for Dr. Martin Luther Martin Luther King, Jr., whose murderers have walked away from his assassination with impunity. As researcher Dave Emory said, “[When] you will not show any substantive interest in who did the killing… it’s grotesque. I think it’s really grotesque to name a holiday after somebody, celebrate a holiday after somebody, when you can’t, you won’t, look into someone’s murder.”

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