Valentine worked as a researcher for the King family and testified
at the trial about suspicions that Dr. King might have been under
U.S. government surveillance at the time of the assassination.
On Dec. 8,
a jury in Memphis, Tenn., deliberated for only three hours before
deciding that the long-held official version of Martin Luther King
Jr.’s assassination was wrong.
The jury’s verdict implicated a retired Memphis businessman and
government agencies in a conspiracy to kill the civil rights giant.
trial testimony had received little press attention outside of the
Memphis area, the startling outcome drew an immediate rebuttal from
defenders of the official finding: that James Earl Ray acted alone
or possibly as part of a low-level conspiracy of a few white racists.
across the country disparaged the December verdict as the product
of a flawed conspiracy theory given a one-sided presentation.
The Washington Post even lumped the conspiracy proponents in
with those who insist Adolf Hitler was unfairly accused of genocide.
of history, whether it occurs in the context of Holocaust denial
or in an effort to rewrite the story of Dr. King’s death, is a dangerous
impulse for which those committed to reasoned debate and truth cannot
sit still,” a Post editorial read. “The more quickly and
completely this jury’s discredited verdict is forgotten the better.”
[WP, Dec. 12, 1999]
For its part,
the King family cited the verdict as a way of dealing with its personal
grief. “We hope to put this behind us and move on with our lives,”
said Dexter King, speaking on behalf of the family. “This is a time
for reconciliation, healing and closure.”
closure – or forgetfulness – follow a verdict that finds the
federal government complicit in a conspiracy to assassinate one
of this nation’s most historic figures? Are there indeed legitimate
reasons to doubt the official story? And how should Americans evaluate
this unorthodox trial, its evidence and the verdict?
the trial in Memphis lacked the neat wrap-up of a Perry Mason drama.
The testimony was sometimes imprecise, dredging up disputed memories
more than three decades old.
was hearsay; long depositions by deceased or absent figures were
read into the record; and some witnesses had changed their stories
over time amid accusations of profiteering.
There was a
messiness that often accompanies complex cases of great notoriety.
The plaintiff’s case also did not encounter a rigorous challenge
from Lewis K. Garrison, the attorney for defendant Loyd Jowers.
the doubts about the official version, and his client, Jowers, has
implicated himself in the conspiracy, although insisting his role
was tangential. Some critics compared the trial to a professional
wrestling match with the defense putting up only token resistance.
the shortcomings, the trial was the first time that evidence from
the King assassination was presented to a jury in a court of law.
The verdict demonstrated that 12 citizens – six blacks and
six whites – did not find the notion of a wide-ranging conspiracy
to kill King as ludicrous as many commentators did.
The trial suggested,
too, that the government erred by neglecting the larger issue of
public interest in the mystery of who killed Martin Luther King
Jr. Instead the government simply affirmed and reaffirmed James
Earl Ray’s guilty plea for three decades. Insisting that the evidence
pointed clearly toward Ray as the assassin, the government never
agreed to vacate Ray’s guilty plea and allow for a full-scale trial,
a possibility that ended when Ray died from liver disease in 1998.
At that point,
the King family judged that a wrongful death suit against Jowers
was the last chance for King’s murder to be considered by a jury.
From the start, the family encountered harsh criticism from many
editorial writers who judged the conspiracy allegations nutty.
The King family’s
suspicions, however, derived from one fact that was beyond dispute:
that powerful elements of the federal government indeed were out
to get Martin Luther King Jr. in the years before his murder.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover despised King as a dangerous radical
who threatened the national security and needed to be neutralized
by almost any means necessary.
“I have a dream speech” in 1963, FBI assistant director William
Sullivan called King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader
in the country.” Hoover reacted to King’s Nobel Peace Prize in 1964
with the comment that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.”
record is clear that the FBI and other federal agencies aggressively
investigated King as an enemy of the state. His movements were monitored;
his phones were tapped; his rooms were bugged; derogatory information
about his personal life was leaked to discredit him; he was blackmailed
about extramarital affairs; he was sent a message suggesting that
he commit suicide.
“There is only
one way out for you,” the message read. “You better take it before
your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
These FBI operations
escalated as black uprisings burned down parts of American cities
and as the nation’s campuses erupted in protests against the Vietnam
War. To many young Americans, black and white, King was a man of
unparalleled stature and extraordinary courage. He was the leader
who could merge the civil rights and anti-war movements.
King saw the two issues as intertwined, as President Lyndon Johnson
siphoned off anti-poverty funds to prosecute the costly war in Vietnam.
On April 15,
1967, less than a year before his murder, King concluded a speech
to an anti-war rally with a call on the Johnson administration to
“stop the bombing.” King also began planning a Poor People’s March
on Washington that would put a tent city on the Mall and press the
government for a broad redistribution of the nation’s wealth.
operations worked to disrupt both the anti-war and civil rights
movements by infiltrating them with spies and agents provocateurs.
The FBI's COINTELPRO sought to neutralize what were called “black
nationalist hate groups,” counting among its targets King’s Southern
Christian Leadership Conference.
One FBI memo
fretted about the possible emergence of a black “Messiah” who could
“unify and electrify” the various black militant groups. The memo
listed King as “a real contender” for this leadership role.
With this backdrop
came the chaotic events in Memphis in early 1968 as King lent his
support to a sanitation workers’ strike marred by violence.
surveillance of King in Memphis – by both federal agents and
city police – would rest at the heart of the case more than
three decades later.
On April 4,
1968, at 6 p.m., King emerged from his room on the second floor
of the Lorraine Motel. As he leaned over the balcony, King was struck
by a single bullet and died.
As word of
his death spread, riots exploded in cities across the country. Fiery
smoke billowed from behind the Capitol dome. Government officials
struggled to restore order and police searched for King’s assassin.
One of those
questioned was restaurant owner Loyd Jowers whose Jim’s Grill was
below the rooming house where James Earl Ray had stayed and from
where authorities contend the fatal shot was fired.
the police he knew nothing about the shooting, but had heard a noise
that “sounded like something that fell in the kitchen.” [The
Commercial Appeal, Dec. 9, 1999]
manhunt ended at London’s Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968, when
Scotland Yard detained Ray for carrying an illegal firearm. Ray
was extradited back to the United States to stand trial as King’s
The FBI insisted
that it could find no solid evidence indicating that Ray was part
of any conspiracy. But the authorities contended they had a strong
case against Ray, including a recovered rifle with Ray’s fingerprints.
The rifle fired bullets of the same caliber as the one that killed
While Ray sat
in jail, Jowers’s name popped up again in the case. On Feb. 10,
1969, Betty Spates, a waitress at Jim’s Grill, implicated Jowers
in the assassination. She said Jowers found a gun behind the caf
and may actually have shot King. Two days later, however, Spates
recanted. [The Commercial Appeal, Dec. 9, 1999]
On March 10,
1969, Ray accepted the advice of his attorney and pleaded guilty.
He was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
later, however, he wrote a letter to the judge asking that his guilty
plea be set aside. He claimed that he was innocent and that his
lawyer had misled him into making the plea.
Ray began telling
a complex tale in which he was duped by an operative he knew only
as “Raul.” Ray claimed that Raul arranged the assassination and
set Ray up to take the fall.
investigators rejected Raul’s existence and insisted that Ray was
simply spinning a story to escape a long prison term. The courts
rejected Ray’s request for a trial. As far as the legal system of
Memphis was concerned, the case was closed.
But there did
appear to be weaknesses in the prosecution case that might have
shown up at trial.
Charles Stephens, a key witness placing Ray at the scene of the
crime, appeared to have been drunk at the time and had offered contradictory
accounts of the assailant’s description, according to a reporter
who encountered him after the shooting. [For details, see William
F. Pepper's Orders
government, other skeptical investigators began to pick at the loose
ends of the case.
In 1971, investigative
writer Harold Weisberg published the first dissenting account of
the official King case in his book, Frame
Up. Weisberg noted problems with the physical evidence,
including the FBI’s failure to match the death slug to the alleged
the case mounted when the federal government declassified records
revealing the intensity of FBI hatred for King. The combination
of factual discrepancies and a possible government motive led some
of King’s friends to suspect a conspiracy.
In 1977, civil
rights leader Ralph Abernathy encouraged lawyer William F. Pepper
to meet with Ray and hear out the convict’s tale. Pepper said he
took on the assignment in part because he had encouraged King to
join in publicly criticizing the Vietnam War and felt a sense of
responsibility for King’s fate.
to growing public doubts about the official accounts of the three
major assassinations that rocked the nation in the 1960s, Congress
also agreed to re-examine the murders of President John F. Kennedy,
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and King.
testimony, however, Ray came off poorly. Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio,
the chairman of the investigating committee, said Ray’s performance
convinced him that Ray indeed was the assassin and that there was
no government role in the murder.
The panel did
leave open the possibility that other individuals were involved,
but limited the scope of any conspiracy to maybe Ray’s brothers,
Jerry and John, or two St. Louis racists who allegedly put a bounty
on King’s life. But others on the panel, such as Rep. Walter Fauntroy,
D-D.C., continued to harbor doubts about the congressional findings.
After a decade
of on-and-off work on the case, Pepper decided to press ahead. He
agreed to represent Ray and filed a habeas corpus suit on his behalf.
Also, in 1993,
a mock television trial presented the evidence against Ray to a
“jury,” which returned the convict’s “acquittal.” Pepper asserted
that the government’s case was so weak that Ray would win a regular
the controversy as well, reversing his initial statement to police
in which he denied knowledge of the assassination. On Dec. 16, 1993,
in a nationally televised ABC-TV interview, Jowers claimed that
a Mafia-connected Memphis produce dealer, Frank C. Liberto, had
paid him $100,000 to arrange King’s murder.
was then dead and the man named by Jowers as the paid hit-man denied
any role in the murder. [The Commercial Appeal, Dec. 9, 1999]
In 1995, Pepper
published an account of his investigation in Orders to Kill.
The book contended that the conspirators behind the assassination
included elements of the Mafia, the FBI and U.S. Army intelligence.
witnesses with new evidence. John McFerren, a black grocery owner,
was quoted as saying that an hour before the assassination, he overheard
Liberto order someone over the phone to “shoot the son of a bitch
when he comes on the balcony.”
credibility suffered when he cited anonymous sources in identifying
William Eidson as a deceased member of a U.S. Army assassination
squad that was present in Memphis on the day King died. ABC-TV researchers
found Eidson to be alive and furious at Pepper’s insinuations about
his alleged role in the King assassination.
King family – especially King’s children – grew increasingly
interested in the controversy. On March 27, 1997, King’s younger
son, Dexter, sat down with Ray in prison, listened to Ray’s story
and announced his belief that Ray was telling the truth.
In a separate
meeting with the King family, Jowers claimed that a police officer
shot King from behind Jim’s Grill. The officer then handed the smoking
rifle to Jowers, the former restaurant owner said.
in Tennessee, however, continued to rebuff Ray’s appeals for a trial.
Prosecutors concluded that Jowers’s story lacked credibility and
may have been motivated by greed. Ray’s pleas for his day in court
finally ended with his death from liver disease.
On Oct. 2,
1998, the King family filed a wrongful death suit against Jowers.
The trial opened in November 1999, attracting scant attention from
the national press.
attended only part of the trial and did not testify. His admissions
of complicity were recounted by others who had spoken with him.
Nations ambassador Andrew Young testified that he found Jowers sincere
during a four-hour conversation about the assassination. “I got
the impression this was a man who was very sick [and who] wanted
to go to confession to get his soul right,” Young said.
Young, Jowers said he had served Memphis police officers and federal
agents when they met in Jowers’s restaurant before the assassination.
Jowers also recounted his story of Mafia money going to a man who
delivered a rifle to Jowers’s caf.
After the assassination,
the man, a Memphis police officer, handed the rifle to Jowers through
a back door, according to Jowers’s account. [Scripps Howard News
Service, Nov. 18, 1999]
A former state
judge, Joe Brown, took the stand to challenge the government’s confidence
that Ray’s rifle was the murder weapon. During one of Ray’s earlier
court hearings, Brown had ordered new ballistic tests on the gun
and the bullet that killed King.
had been inconclusive, with the forensics experts unable to rule
whether the gun was the murder weapon or wasn’t. In his testimony,
however, Brown asserted that the sight on the rifle was so poor
that it couldn’t have killed King.
literally could not hit the broadside of a barn,” Brown said. But
he acknowledged that he had no formal training as a weapons expert.
The jury also
heard testimony that federal authorities were monitoring the area
around the Lorraine Motel. Carthel Weeden, a former captain with
the Memphis Fire Department, said that on the afternoon of April
4, 1968, two men appeared at the fire station across from the motel
and showed the credentials of U.S. Army officers.
The men then
carried briefcases, which they said held photographic equipment,
up to the roof of the station. Weeden said the men positioned themselves
behind a parapet approximately 18 inches high, a position that gave
them a clear view of the Lorraine Motel and the rooming house window
from which Ray allegedly fired the shot that killed King.
They also would
have had a view of the area behind Jim’s Grill. But what happened
to any possible photographs remains a mystery. Weeden added that
he was never questioned by local or federal authorities.
Fauntroy also testified at the Kings-Jowers trial. Fauntroy complained
that the 1978 congressional inquiry was not as thorough as the public
might have thought. The committee dropped the investigation when
funding dried up and left some promising leads unexplored, he told
“Had we had
[another] six months, we may well have gotten to the bottom of everything,”
Fauntroy testified on Nov. 29. “We didn’t have the time to investigate
leads we had established but could not follow. … We asked the Justice
Department to follow up … and to see if there was more than just
a low-level conspiracy.”
described a strange withdrawal of police protection from around
the motel about an hour before King’s death. A group of black homicide
detectives, who had served as King’s bodyguards on previous visits
to Memphis, were kept from performing those duties in April 1968.
In his summation,
trying to minimize his client’s alleged role in the conspiracy,
Garrison asked the jury, “would the owner of a greasy spoon restaurant,
and a lone assassin, could they pull away officers from the scene
of an assassination? Could they put someone up on the top of the
evidence apparently convinced the jury. After the trial, juror Robert
Tucker told a reporter that the 12 jurors agreed that the assassination
was too complex for one person to handle. He noted the testimony
about the police guards being removed and Army agents observing
King from the firehouse. “All of these things added up,” Tucker
said. [AP, Dec. 9, 1999]
Even before the trial ended, the media controversy about the case
had begun. Many reporters viewed the conspiracy allegations as half-baked
and the defense as offering few challenges to the breathtaking assertions.
The jury, for
instance, heard little about the gradual evolution of Jowers’s story,
which began with a flat denial and grew over time with the addition
of sometimes-conflicting details.
In a commentary
on the case, history writer John McMillian reaffirmed his confidence
in Ray’s guilt and his certainty that the wrongful death suit was
“misguided.” But McMillian noted that the King family’s suspicions
about the government’s actions were grounded in the reality of the
FBI’s campaign to ruin King’s reputation.
was alive, he and his family suffered needlessly from slimy government
subterfuge,” McMillian wrote. Though believing Ray was “justly punished
for being King’s assassin,u201D McMillian wrote, u201Cthe FBI has never
been held accountable for a much more lengthy, expensive and organized
campaign to destroy King.” [The Commercial Appeal, Nov. 26,
focused on Pepper. Court TV analyst Harriet Ryan noted that the
King family’s motivations appeared sincere, but “the same cannot
be said for Pepper [who] stands to gain from sales of his book.”
author of the conspiracy-debunking book, Killing
the Dream, argued that the trial “bordered on the absurd”
due to a “lethargic” defense and a passive judge who allowed “most
everything to come into the record.”
cited money as the motive behind the case. He accused Pepper of
misleading the King family for personal gain and suggested that
the King family went along as part of a scheme to sell the movie
rights to film producer Oliver Stone.
that a film project that the King family had discussed with Warner
Bros. had fallen through before the civil case was brought. He noted,
too, that the family sought and received only a token jury award
of $100. [WP, Dec. 18, 1999]
But the back-and-forth quickly muddied whatever new understanding
the public might have gained from the trial.
Part of the
confusion could be traced to the effectiveness of Posner and other
critics in making their case in a wide array of newspapers and on
television talk shows. Some of the blame, however, must fall on
Pepper and his flawed investigation that did include some erroneous
tragedy may be that the serious questions about King’s assassination
have receded even deeper into the historical mist.
As Court TV
analyst Ryan noted, “Whatever theories Garrison and Pepper get into
the record … it is not likely they will change the general belief
that Ray was responsible.”
may be right, another perspective came in 1996 when two admirers
of Dr. King – the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. and actor Mike Farrell
– wrote a fund-raising letter seeking support for a fuller
investigation of the assassination.
that the full story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was
too important to the country to leave any stone unturned. They stated:
buried truths in our history which continue to insist themselves
back into the light, perhaps because they hold within them the nearly
dead embers of what we were once intended to be as a nation.”
Valentine [send him mail]
the author of four previously published books: The Hotel Tacloban
(Lawrence Hill, 1984), The
Phoenix Program, (William Morrow, 1990), TDY
(iUniverse.com, 2000), and The
Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs
(Verso, 2004). His latest book is The
Strength of the Pack (TrineDay, 2009). For more information
about the author and his works, please visit his websites at www.douglasvalentine.com