Who Killed Martin Luther King?

Last week, a Memphis jury found that restaurant owner Loyd Jowers was involved in a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King Jr. Some claim that the verdict proves that James Earl Ray–who was convicted of the assassination in 1969 and died in prison last year–did not shoot King. Others say that the verdict was bogus. What is the gist of the story?

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his Memphis motel. Police concluded that Ray killed King with a single rifle shot from the room he rented across the street. A pair of binoculars and a rifle with a single spent shell were recovered from the building in which Ray stayed. Both the rifle and the binoculars were covered with Ray’s fingerprints. Ray, a racist and career criminal who had escaped from prison a year earlier, was arrested in London two months after the killing. At first he claimed innocence, but later pleaded guilty and received a 99-year sentence. Soon afterward, he recanted his confession, saying that he had transported the suspected murder weapon to Memphis on behalf of a man named “Raoul,” but did not shoot King.

In 1997, King’s family publicly reconciled with Ray, endorsing his innocence and positing a wider conspiracy to kill King. The Memphis District Attorney’s Office reopened its investigation, but reaffirmed Ray’s conviction last year. Represented by Ray’s former attorney, William Pepper, the King family responded by filing a wrongful death civil suit against Jowers for his role in the alleged plot, which they claimed also involved the CIA, FBI, U.S. armed forces, Memphis police, and the mafia. The Kings, who declared that their purpose was to win a jury’s endorsement of their views, demanded only $100 in damages. Jowers’ attorney didn’t put up much of a fight: He never disputed that there was a conspiracy, but simply denied that his client was knowingly a part of it. The jurors were instructed to decide whether or not a conspiracy involving Jowers and “others, including governmental agencies” existed. But they did not have to determine who was involved or what role each organization played. So, the specifics of the alleged theory remain vague. Among the arguments presented by the Kings’ attorney:

  • James Earl Ray could not have committed the crime: Some say Ray, who dropped out of school in 8th grade, was not smart enough to pull it off. The Kings also presented ballistics evidence suggesting that Ray’s gun could not have fired the fatal shot. Although government investigators did not participate in the civil trial, they have long cited Ray’s record of successful bank robberies and his above average IQ as evidence that he was capable of the crime. They also say that while the ballistic information is inconclusive, it does not rule Ray out.
  • Loyd Jowers confessed: In a 1993 television interview, Jowers claimed that he had hired and assisted someone else in killing King. Jowers, who owned the restaurant opposite King’s motel (and one floor below the room Ray rented), said he had hired the real assassin on behalf of an associate with possible ties to the mob. He claimed the assassin shot King from his restaurant and fled. Jowers failed a lie detector test about the claims. He has since changed his story multiple times and now denies any intentional involvement in the assassination. The Memphis District Attorney’s investigation concluded that Jowers made his claims in hopes of snagging a Hollywood deal.
  • The government disliked Martin Luther King: The government’s anger at King for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his activism for racial and economic equality is well documented: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover bugged his hotel rooms and sent his wife a tape that suggested King was having an extramarital affair. (Indeed, King did have such affairs.) While Pepper presented no definitive evidence establishing a government conspiracy, he did claim to have witnesses in reserve who can prove the government’s role. He has not revealed most of their identities; one National Guard officer whom Pepper implicated in the plot sued him for libel.

In addition to last year’s Memphis district attorney’s probe, a House of Representatives investigation of the murder in the late 1970s found no evidence of a government conspiracy. (It did leave open the possibility that Ray was involved in a low-level plot involving his brothers and a racist group.) Ray also appealed his conviction seven times over three decades–each time citing new evidence–but the appeals were rejected by the courts. And last year, at the behest of the King family, the Justice Department ordered an investigation into the assassination. However, early reports indicate that it, too, is likely to conclude that Ray fired the fatal shot.