Lawyers and Lizard-Heads

The prison letters of James Earl Ray

The special-collections department of Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library holds more than 83,000 documents pertaining to the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who received a doctorate in theology from the university in 1955 and established the King archive with a large donation of materials in 1964. Eighteen months ago Howard Gotlieb, the university's director of special collections, quietly augmented the library's holdings with the prison letters of James Earl Ray, the man widely believed to be King's assassin. Earlier this year we were the first people outside the library to be given an opportunity to examine the Ray letters.

The collection consists of approximately 400 letters that James Earl Ray wrote from 1969 to 1997—mostly to his brother Jerry. Prison regulations forbade him to write letters longer than two pages, so Ray was always succinct. The early letters are handwritten, sometimes with a green ball-point pen; as the years went on, Ray became adept at typing. From his cell at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, an hour from Knoxville, and at Tennessee State Prison and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in Nashville, Ray detailed his battles with wardens, police officers, and legal authorities; his views on celebrity and the news media; and his endless maneuverings to promote some self-exculpatory version of the circumstances behind the King assassination.

The Ray collection offers an intimate glimpse into the life of a criminal whose adult years were spent almost entirely behind bars. James Earl Ray was born in 1928 in Alton, Illinois, the first of seven children. His father was an ex-convict; his own career outside the law began at an early age. In 1967, imprisoned for robbing a grocery store, Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary, in Jefferson City, by hiding in a bread crate. He lived free for a year under numerous aliases in the United States and Canada. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Prosecutors contended that Ray fired the fatal shot from the bathroom of a rooming house. He was apprehended at London's Heathrow Airport two months after the assassination.

During the thirty years of his imprisonment Ray often sought to persuade the world that he was a fall guy framed by the FBI or by organized crime. Initially Ray had confessed to killing King; he agreed to a plea bargain and was given a prison sentence of ninety-nine years. Soon after his sentencing, however, he recanted his confession. Much of Ray's correspondence deals with his subsequent efforts to overturn the plea bargain and have his case brought to trial, which the State of Tennessee opposed. The convoluted legal battle continued until Ray's death, in 1998, and ultimately made Ray deeply conversant with the technicalities of the law.

In the following 1972 letter from Ray to Jerry, "Fensterwald" is Bernard Fensterwald, Ray's lawyer at the time, and "J.B." is J. B. Stoner, a Georgia segregationist and lawyer, who would one day be charged with the 1958 bombing of Birmingham's Bethel Street Baptist Church. The letter typifies the way Ray was always playing angles, legal and investigative. "Franks" is most likely Gerold Frank, the author of a 1972 book about the King assassination, An American Death.

That is to bad about the Judge getting sick but maybe he will get allright before to long. The business I wanted you and J.B. to see him about is more important than 1000 talk shows, I can't get any legal relief from talk shows, althoe they might help some ... We should have had the info the Judge was looking into 2 or 3 years ago. Therefore if you and J.B. goes through Chattannoga stop and see him if he is well enought, if he can't do nothing personally he might tell you who to see or, he may have allready found out something. If he can't J.B. suggested something when he was up here, but since I don't want to put it in this letter, I will wait until I see him or you. (The warden told Fensterwald that he may put you back on visiting list)

Fensterwald was here Friday the 21st. and he thinks we have an excellent chance for sueing Franks and others including the Att.Gen. but again we will need the info. I have been telling you about above.

Fensterwald seem's to think everything is going good. The state has about run out of time, of stalling time...

Concluding, I believe every thing legally is about to come to a head, the suit is now in the Tenn.Sup.Ct. and they will have to rule in a couple of months, plus the civil suit will proably force the state to do something.

Not surprisingly, in none of the letters did Ray confess to the murder of Martin Luther King. In none of them did he profess his innocence, either; the outrage of the Wronged Man is missing. Ray's attention was narrowly focused on the legal process, and on getting a trial.

When a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives investigated the King assassination, in 1978, it concluded that Ray had indeed killed King but may have had help. Ray himself eventually claimed that the assassination was orchestrated by a mysterious man named Raoul. A succession of lawyers for Ray—nine in all—struggled over the years to build some sort of case in his behalf. It was not easy: he was an inveterate liar. When he died, of liver failure, at the age of seventy, it seemed that the matter was at an end. But a victory of sorts for Ray occurred within two years of his death, when a Memphis jury came to the conclusion that a government conspiracy was responsible for King's assassination. The jury's decision came in a suit filed by the King family against Loyd Jowers, a retired Memphis entrepreneur who stated on national television in 1993 that he had paid someone other than Ray to murder King. Jowers maintained that he had become involved at the behest of an acquaintance who was employed by the Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, of New Orleans. The jury held Jowers liable in King's death and concluded that unnamed others, including officials of U.S. government agencies, were also implicated in the crime. The King family was awarded $100—the symbolic fee requested in the suit. "In my opinion it had to be a conspiracy," Martin Luther King III has maintained. "It's probably a fact that the intelligence community played a role." Despite such statements, the notion of Ray as an innocent party has not widely taken hold in America. The most respected book on the assassination, Gerald Posner's Killing the Dream (1998), unflinchingly points to Ray as the assassin.

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