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Convicted King Assasin Ray Dies of Liver Failure in Prison

By Richard Pearson
The Washington Post
Nashville, Tenn.

James Earl Ray, 70, a career petty criminal who was the convicted killer of legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., died of liver failure April 23 at Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital in Nashville, Tenn.

He was serving a 99-year prison sentence for the 1968 slaying, after pleading guilty in March 1969 and avoiding a possible death sentence. Mr. Ray, who had been in and out of hospitals since 1996 for treatment for liver disease, later recanted his confession, saying he was coerced into pleading guilty.

King was killed by a sniper April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The civil rights leader and noted preacher had gone to Memphis to lend his support to striking sanitation workers.

The echoes of that rifle shot ignited rioting in more than 100 cities, including Washington, and seemed to dim the spirit of the entire country, where King had become a leading civil rights figure by winning stunning victories for racial justice through militantly nonviolent means.

Only weeks later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) brother of the slain president, was gunned down in the midst of celebrating his victory in the California Democratic presidential primary. To many, the two 1968 slayings marked a watershed in U.S. history.

Mr. Ray was an escaped convict with a lifelong list of crimes and a distinct penchant for getting caught. He quickly became a suspect in King's slaying after the gun was traced to him and his fingerprints were found in the room where the shots were fired. The room, in a cheap rooming house across from King's motel, was registered to Mr. Ray.

Mr. Ray led authorities on a 25,000-mile chase. He was apprehended at London's Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968, two months after the death of King and on the day of Kennedy's funeral.

He eventually waived extradition and returned to the United States. He fired his first attorney the day before his trial was to begin and instead hired Percy Foreman, the noted Texas trial lawyer.

Foreman persuaded Mr. Ray to plead guilty to the shooting, saying that the evidence was overwhelming and that the media already had convicted him. A trial could well end with a death sentence, but a guilty plea would result in a life sentence.

Mr. Ray pleaded guilty to murder, got a 99-year prison sentence and, three days later, tried to recant his story. He also began a tortured and disturbed decades-long prison incarceration.

Over the years, he was attacked several times by fellow inmates, once receiving 22 stab wounds.

Once, he escaped from Bushy Mountain Prison in Tennessee, eluding authorities for 54 hours before being recaptured in another one of the greatest manhunts in modern memory.

Mr. Ray constantly changed his story about the assassination, at times saying that he was part of a conspiracy and other times saying he acted alone. By 1974, at his first parole hearing, he said he had not killed King at all. He did not win parole.

Many of those supporting Mr. Ray's calls for new trials or investigations were people who really did not like Mr. Ray. Civil rights leaders, journalists and congressional investigators questioned whether an inept petty criminal could have masterminded the shooting of King or the subsequent chase that ended in Europe.

Among those with doubts about Mr. Ray and the shooting were the King family. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, recently called for a new trial. Dexter King, one of the Kings' four children, met Mr. Ray in 1997 and said he was convinced that Mr. Ray did not kill his father. Other doubters included the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery Jr., a founder of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said he never believed Mr. Ray was smart enough to mastermind the assassination.

Over the years, those who knew Ray painted a portrait of an almost comically inept criminal who, when imprisoned, spent his time planning great escapes.

His first criminal failure was in 1949, when his holdup of a cab driver ended ingloriously after he was chased and fell through a basement window. The second may have been in 1950, when he received a 90-day jail sentence for stealing a typewriter.

Later brushes with the law included an incident in which he leaped into a police car, thinking it was a taxi, to escape a crime scene. Another time, while robbing a dry-cleaning establishment, he fled the store after dropping his wallet on the floor and severely cutting himself on the glass he had broken to enter the building.