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King Assassination Conspiracy Theories

A variety of outlandish conspiracy theories abound, but the evidence still squarely points to James Earl Ray

by Borgna Brunner
James Earl Ray

For an authoritative exploration of the King assassination, see Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Gerald Posner.

For the views of James Earl Ray's attorney, see Orders to Kill: The Truth behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., by William F. Pepper.

Since Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, assassination 40 years ago, his murder has become endless fodder for conspiracy theorists. Complete with shadowy film noir atmospherics and sensational charges leveled at the highest circles of power, the King conspiracy theories rival the most crazed accounts of Kennedy's assassination.

These theories gained renewed momentum when King's son Dexter met with his father's convicted assassin in prison in 1997. With the blessings of King's widow and the other King children, Dexter King shook James Earl Ray's hand and professed belief in his innocence. A second boost to the legitimacy of the King conspiracy theories came the following year when Attorney General Janet Reno reopened a limited investigation into the assassination in August 1998. And finally, in Dec. 1999, a Memphis jury awarded the King family a symbolic $100 in a wrongful death suit. The jury professed that the murder was indeed a conspiracy involving bar owner Lloyd Jowers (see Conspiracy Theory #4 below) and several "unknown" co-conspirators. Few journalists, scholars, or law enforcement officials familiar with the case have given credence to the new court findings.

In the accepted version of the assassination—one which no credible historian, or federal or state investigation has disputed—James Earl Ray, a career criminal and open racist, murdered Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. An escaped convict, Ray rented a room in Memphis across from the Lorraine Motel where King was staying while mediating a sanitation workers' strike. Using a rifle with a sniper scope, he shot King from his bathroom window as King stood on the balcony of the motel. The single bullet severed King's spinal cord and killed him.

Witnesses reported seeing Ray fleeing his rooming house moments later. Ray's fingerprints were found on a pair of binoculars and the rifle, which records show he had purchased six days before the shooting. Following a two-month-long manhunt, Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport after he had robbed a London bank. As he told his first attorney, Percy Foreman, "I thought I could get to [South] Africa and serve two or three years in one of them mercenary armies and those folks over there wouldn't send me back."

To escape facing the possibility of execution, Ray pleaded guilty in March 1969. As a result, a trial was waived and Ray was given a 99-year prison sentence. Even though he had told the judge he understood that a guilty plea could not be appealed, he recanted his confession three days later. Despite many appeals, none of Ray's numerous lawyers ever produced evidence convincing a court of law to reopen the case. A federal investigation in 1977–1978 by the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that although "there is a likelihood" that Ray did not act alone in planning the assassination, he alone pulled the trigger.

Until he died in prison on April 23, 1998, Ray maintained his innocence, spinning a series of outlandish, often contradictory conspiracy theories, beginning with the reason he initially confessed to the murder: Ray claimed it was coerced by his lawyer, who was angling for a lucrative movie deal. What follows are some of the more popular conspiracy theories.

Top King Conspiracy Theories

Theory #1: James Earl Ray
Was James Earl Ray, a career criminal and known racist, nothing more than a patsy for someone even shadier?

Theory #2: Government
It was the government, the Memphis police, the FBI, and Army intelligence — not to mention the Mafia and the Green Berets.

Theory #3: Evidence of "Raul"
Donald Wilson, a retired FBI employee, found pieces of paper in Ray's car after the 1968 shooting that had the name "Raul" written on them.

Theory #4: The Memphis Bar Man
Memphis bar owner Lloyd Jowers did it.





Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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