March 10, 1969: James Earl Ray Convicted of MLK Jr.'s Assassination


James Earl Ray, a long-time criminal and prison escapee, was convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. on March 10, 1969, his 41st birthday.

Opting to forgo a jury trial in the interest of not having the death penalty on the table, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

He would have been eligible for parole in 2018 after serving half of his sentence at the age of 90, but died after only serving 29 years in 1998.


Ray was born on March 10, 1928 in Alton, Illinois to parents Lucille and George Ellis Ray, and was brought up Catholic. His father was caught passing a bad check in 1935, and the family relocated to Ewing, Missouri and assumed the last name Raynes to avoid law enforcement.

He was the oldest of the family's 9 children, including a sister named Marjorie who died in a fire when she was young.

He dropped out of school at the age of 15 and joined the U.S. army, serving in Germany, but was discharged for "ineptness and lack of adaptability" in 1948.

Before the assassination, Ray was a seasoned criminal. He had been arrested for burglary, armed robbery of a taxi driver, mail fraud consisting of stealing money orders to go on vacation, and more armed robbery. He was sentenced to 20 years for repeated offenses, but escaped in 1967 by hiding in the truck delivering bread to the prison bakery.

After his escape, he was immediately on the move. He bought a car and moved to Mexico, assuming the name Eric Starvo Galt with high, high hopes of becoming a pornographic film director. But after frustration with his work and a fall-out with his prostitute girlfriend, he left Mexico for Los Angeles.

There, he attended bartending school, took dance lessons, and became extremely interested and involved in George Wallace's presidential campaign, because he harbored extreme anger towards black people and thus, supported Wallace's segregationist platform.

He underwent facial reconstruction surgery while in LA in 1968, and they started a cross country drive to Atlanta. From Atlanta, he bounced to Birmingham, Alabama to purchase a gun, 20 cartridges and a scope to mount to the rifle under the name Harvey Lowmeyer, saying he was going on a hunting trip with his brother. (This man was an escaped convict)

After purchasing the gun, he drove back to Atlanta and, allegedly, read that King was going to be in Memphis and so on April 2, 1968, he headed that way.


On April 4, 1968, Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a sing shot from the gun he had purchased in Birmingham. King was standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and Ray was renting a room across the way.

After the shot was fired, witnesses saw him fleeing from the rooming house across the street, and an abandoned package close by was found with the rifle and a pair of binoculars, both containing his fingerprints.

He fled in his white Ford Mustang, driving 11 hours in a row, and eventually landing himself in Toronto 3 days later. He hid for over a month, acquiring a Canadian passport under his 3rd assumed name, Ramon George Sneyd. He left Canada for London, went to Portugal, and went back to London.

While trying to leave the UK for Brussels, he was arrested, 2 months after King's death. The ticket agent realized that his fake last name was on a watchlist, and upon further investigation, they found a 2nd fake passport with a 2nd fake name. He was extradited to Tennessee and charged with King's murder. He confessed on March 10, 1969.

3 days after his confession, he recanted. He said he had entered the guilty plea on the behest of his attorney in order to avoid electrocution. He fired his attorney, claiming that a man he met in Canada in 1967 named "Raul" had been involved, and Ray claimed that he did not shoot King, but admitted that perhaps he could have been partially responsible without knowing it.

Ray spent the rest of his life trying to withdraw his plea and get a new trial, initially believing that George Wallace would be elected and would help get him out of prison.

Ray escaped with 6 other convicts on June 10, 1977, and all were captured on June 13, and a year was added to his sentence, making it 100 years.

Ray hired a new attorney who helped bring to light his claim that he was wrapped up in a conspiracy. He tried to conduct a new ballistics test to prove his innocence, but the test was inconclusive. His attorney also convinced him to take a polygraph test, which a magazine reported proved that Ray did it, and did it alone, but Ray fired his attorney after finding out he had been paid $11,000 by the magazine.

Additionally, journalist William Bradford Huie said that Ray told him that he purposely left his fingerprinted items behind so he could become a famous criminal, and he believed he would not be caught.


Despite Ray dying in prison for the crime and the most widely accepted version of events leading to Ray, the King family does not believe he was involved.

Ray claimed that "Raul"directed him to buy the gun and binoculars and rent the room across the street. Some believe that his ability to escape internationally for months is proof that more people were involved, as a petty criminal would not have the means or smarts to escape in such a way.

Nearly immediately after the assassination, Coretta King, King's wife, believed the FBI was involved, as they had been closely watching and harassing him and his family and friends for quite some time. The family always believed the FBI had something to do with King's death.

It wasn't until 1997 when Dexter King, King's son, visited Ray in prison and asked him point blank if he had killed his father, and he said no, he did not. From then on, the family took a public stance that Ray was innocent.

A mock trial was conducted where Ray was convicted by King family friend William Pepper, where a new name, Loyd Jowers, came up. He owned the restaurant below Ray's rented room. Despite not ever saying he was involved in the 2+ decades since the assassination, he claimed during the mock trial that he was a part of the conspiracy and that Ray had been set up to take the fall. Other members of the conspiracy included Raul, the Memphis Police and a member of the Mafia.

Ray was acquitted in the mock trial. In 1999, Pepper represented the King family in a wrongful deaths suit against Jowers, and we was found legally liable. The family was paid out only $100, a number that helped support their claim that it was not about the money.

Despite the public belief being that, conspiracy or not, Ray was somehow involved, the King family believes in his innocence.


James Earl Ray died at age 70 on April 23, 1998, after serving nearly 30 years of his prison sentence. He died from kidney disease and liver failure caused by Hepatitis C.

His brother Jerry told CNN that he did not want his final resting place to be in the U.S. because of the treatment he had received from the government. He was cremated, and his ashes were flown to Ireland to be laid to rest there.

James Earl Ray was a bad guy. He stole money and robbed places at gunpoint. He was racist and enthusiastically supported a presidential candidate running on that platform. He escaped from prison on charges he was definitely guilty of. He fled the murder scene of a prominent Civil Rights leader and hid under various different aliases for months after. None of that is up for debate.

But what still is, even 51 years later, is if on that list of bad things he did should be: Assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. Did he do it? Does his racism and quick flee from the scene and criminal background and fingerprints prove that he did, or just prove that he was the perfect person to frame for it?

What do you think?




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