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King's Son Meets Ray, Agrees He's Not Assassin

Conviction: They shake hands in prison encounter in which dying inmate insists he's not the killer. Dexter King says he'll work to help him get a trial.

March 28, 1997|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — It was, as Dexter King kept saying, an "awkward" moment. What does a son say to the man convicted of killing his father?

Twenty-nine years after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader's son met Thursday with a dying James Earl Ray.

The two men shook hands. They discussed Ray's health. They touched a bit on the long-ago excesses of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. And then King, looking Ray in the eye, slid ever so gently toward the heart of the matter. He asked the question he'd traveled from Atlanta to a Nashville prison hospital to ask: "Did you kill my father?"

"No, no," a frail Ray said. "I didn't."

Ray said more, some of it rambling, some not comprehensible. "Sometimes these questions are difficult to answer and you have to make a personal evaluation and . . . maybe come to a conclusion," he said.

"Well," King replied, "as awkward as this may seem, I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you; and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail."

Ray confessed to killing King in 1969 and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He recanted three days later, claiming that his lawyer had coerced him. The judge died while considering his request for a trial. Ray has been trying to get a trial ever since.

William Pepper, Ray's current attorney and a former associate of Martin Luther King Jr., says Ray was a pawn of government forces who manipulated him and conspired with organized crime to murder King.

A Tennessee criminal appeals court is considering whether to grant a request to allow experts hired by Pepper to test the rifle and remnants of the fatal bullet with a sophisticated electron microscope. Earlier tests, all conducted by government experts, were inconclusive.

While Thursday's meeting was the first between Ray and a member of King's family, a number of the civil rights leader's close associates have long championed Ray's innocence. Pepper and Ralph Abernathy, who succeeded King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first met with Ray in 1978. After that meeting and subsequent investigatory work, Pepper said he became convinced of Ray's innocence.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote the foreword to a book Ray wrote proclaiming his innocence. And the Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles, who coordinated the Memphis garbage workers strike that brought King in 1968 to Memphis, where he was killed, is a staunch supporter who performed Ray's in-prison wedding ceremony.

Even some old associates of Martin Luther King Jr. who believe Ray was involved in the assassination support efforts for a trial because they see it as an opportunity to fully explore the possibility of government involvement.

But, during Dexter King's 20-minute conversation with Ray in front of television cameras, he seemed to fully embrace Ray's innocence. "In a strange sort of way," he said at one point, "we're both victims."

King, 36, also spoke of the "strange ironies" that now have united King's friends and family with Ray in a search to uncover the whole story of what happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when a rifle bullet ripped into his father's face. Quoting his father, King said, "We are all caught up in a mutual garment of destiny."

Ray, wearing a faded blue prison uniform and trembling slightly, entered the room in a wheelchair but moved to a chair opposite King for their conversation.

King called the meeting a "spiritual experience."

Cable News Network cameras were on hand to record the beginning of their talk. Then the room was cleared and the two men spoke privately.

Acknowledging that it is "the eleventh hour," with Ray expected to die within a year from cirrhosis of the liver, King promised to work with Ray's attorney "in any way I can to try and bring forth the necessary forum to help exonerate you and continue the struggle."

King, his mother and his three siblings announced last month that they have always believed the civil rights leader was the victim of a conspiracy and that the government likely was involved.

They did not get involved sooner in fighting for a trial, they said, because the subject was painful for them and they didn't believe their intervention would make a difference.

Coretta and Dexter King, who heads the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, delivered emotional testimony in a hearing last month in an effort to get the case reopened.

If a trial ever is granted, Pepper says he would present evidence to prove that Ray did not kill King. But local prosecutors in Memphis are opposed to reopening the case. Even if a trial were held, they say, the judge likely would not allow evidence that Pepper claims to have which implicates others in the murder.

Material collected by the House Select Committee on Assassinations during an inquiry into the murder in 1978 have been sealed until the year 2028. The congressional investigators concluded that Ray killed King but that he might have had help, perhaps from white supremacists or his brother.

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