a Memphis jury’s verdict on December 8, 1999, in the wrongful
death lawsuit of the King family versus Loyd Jowers "and other
unknown co-conspirators," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated
by a conspiracy that included agencies of his own government. Almost
32 years after King’s murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis
on April 4, 1968, a court extended the circle of responsibility
for the assassination beyond the late scapegoat James Earl Ray to
the United States government.
I can hardly
believe the fact that, apart from the courtroom participants, only
Memphis TV reporter Wendell Stacy and I attended from beginning
to end this historic three-and-one-half week trial. Because of journalistic
neglect scarcely anyone else in this land of ours even knows what
went on in it. After critical testimony was given in the trial’s
second week before an almost empty gallery, Barbara Reis, U.S. correspondent
for the Lisbon daily Publico who was there several days,
turned to me and said, "Everything in the U.S. is the trial
of the century. O.J. Simpson’s trial was the trial of the century.
Clinton’s trial was the trial of the century. But this is the
trial of the century, and who’s here?"
What I experienced
in that courtroom ranged from inspiration at the courage of the
Kings, their lawyer-investigator William F. Pepper, and the witnesses,
to amazement at the government’s carefully interwoven plot
to kill Dr. King. The seriousness with which U.S. intelligence agencies
planned the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. speaks eloquently of
the threat Kingian nonviolence represented to the powers that be
in the spring of 1968.
In the complaint
filed by the King family, "King versus Jowers and Other Unknown
Co-Conspirators," the only named defendant, Loyd Jowers, was
never their primary concern. As soon became evident in court, the
real defendants were the anonymous co-conspirators who stood in
the shadows behind Jowers, the former owner of a Memphis bar and
grill. The Kings and Pepper were in effect charging U.S. intelligence
agencies – particularly the FBI and Army intelligence –
with organizing, subcontracting, and covering up the assassination.
Such a charge guarantees almost insuperable obstacles to its being
argued in a court within the United States. Judicially it is an
have been attached to the verdict in the King case. It came not
in criminal court but in civil court, where the standards of evidence
are much lower than in criminal court. (For example, the plaintiffs
used unsworn testimony made on audiotapes and videotapes.) Furthermore,
the King family as plaintiffs and Jowers as defendant agreed ahead
of time on much of the evidence.
But these observations
are not entirely to the point. Because of the government’s
"sovereign immunity," it is not possible to put a U.S.
intelligence agency in the dock of a U.S. criminal court. Such a
step would require authorization by the federal government, which
is not likely to indict itself. Thanks to the conjunction of a civil
court, an independent judge with a sense of history, and a courageous
family and lawyer, a spiritual breakthrough to an unspeakable truth
occurred in Memphis. It allowed at least a few people (and hopefully
many more through them) to see the forces behind King’s martyrdom
and to feel the responsibility we all share for it through our government.
In the end, twelve jurors, six black and six white, said to everyone
willing to hear: guilty as charged.
We can also
thank the unlikely figure of Loyd Jowers for providing a way into
When the frail, 73-year-old Jowers became ill after three days in
court, Judge Swearengen excused him. Jowers did not testify and
said through his attorney, Lewis Garrison, that he would plead the
Fifth Amendment if subpoenaed. His discretion was too late. In 1993
against the advice of Garrison, Jowers had gone public. Prompted
by William Pepper’s progress as James Earl Ray’s attorney
in uncovering Jowers’s role in the assassination, Jowers told
his story to Sam Donaldson on Prime Time Live. He said he
had been asked to help in the murder of King and was told there
would be a decoy (Ray) in the plot. He was also told that the police
"wouldn’t be there that night."
In that interview,
the transcript of which was read to the jury in the Memphis courtroom,
Jowers said the man who asked him to help in the murder was a Mafia-connected
produce dealer named Frank Liberto. Liberto, now deceased, had a
courier deliver $100,000 for Jowers to hold at his restaurant, Jim’s
Grill, the back door of which opened onto the dense bushes across
from the Lorraine Motel. Jowers said he was visited the day before
the murder by a man named Raul, who brought a rifle in a box.
As Mike Vinson
reported in the March–April Probe, other witnesses testified
to their knowledge of Liberto’s involvement in King’s
slaying. Store-owner John McFerren said he arrived around 5:15 pm,
April 4, 1968, for a produce pick-up at Frank Liberto’s warehouse
in Memphis. (King would be shot at 6:01 pm.) When he approached
the warehouse office, McFerren overheard Liberto on the phone inside
saying, "Shoot the son-of-a-bitch on the balcony."
Lavada Addison, a friend of Liberto’s in the late 1970’s,
testified that Liberto had told her he "had Martin Luther King
killed." Addison’s son, Nathan Whitlock, said when he
learned of this conversation he asked Liberto point-blank if he
had killed King.
said, ‘I didn’t kill the nigger but I had it done.’
I said, ‘What about that other son-of-a-bitch taking credit
for it?’ He says, ‘Ahh, he wasn’t nothing but a troublemaker
from Missouri. He was a front man…a setup man.’"