by Ryan M. Jones
November 21, 2014
On March 28, 1997, Dexter King, the youngest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked inside of a Tennessee Penitentiary to meet the man who has been convicted as his father’s assassination.
James Earl Ray, at age 79 did not stutter when asked by Dexter, “Did you shoot my father?”
Ray responded “No sir, I did not.”
With that, the King family publicly supported the defense of James Earl Ray and encouraged that he finally have a trial for the crime he was accused of 39 years before. Less than a year later, James Earl Ray was dead at age 80 due to liver failure.
In December 1999, the King family filed a lawsuit against Loyd Jowers, a man who came forward in 1993 admitting he was involved in a plot to assassinate Dr. King. The civil case returned a verdict exonerating James Earl Ray as the assassin. This civil trial is barely known, if known at all.
The National Civil Rights Museum is the site of the original Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was slain. It is also the site of the boarding house, where authorities believe James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot from. The museum has on display a timeline of Dr. King’s last weeks as well as James Earl Ray’s movements during this time. The museum has recreated the room Ray checked into and allegedly fired the shot from, which is a community bathroom window down the hall. The rifle, autopsy report, and much more are also on display in the museum.
Unlike most museums, the National Civil Rights Museum exercises alternative scenarios as to what could have happened on April 4, 1968. Lingering questions remain as to who could have assisted Ray or who could have set him up to take the fall. With all of the overwhelming evidence on both sides, I decided to stage a mock trial entitled “You Be The Judge.”
"You Be The Judge" allowed visitors to hear for the very first time anywhere how the case would have been tried had James Earl Ray opted to not plead guilty. Museum staff and volunteers played the roles of key witnesses linked to the case. The entire transcript was created from police interviews, depositions, affidavits, and FBI statements. For the first time, the public heard both cases together.
Eight witnesses for the State of Tennessee concluded that James Earl Ray using aliases, stalked Dr. King, purchased a high-powered rifle, rented a room across the street from the Lorraine Motel, and killed Dr. King. They also relied on witnesses stating that they believe Ray dropped a bundle of a large number of items including the murder weapon before fleeing away in a 1966 Mustang. The aliases subsequently were tied back to him.
Eight witnesses for the defense argued many claims of the prosecution. They advocated that the shot was fired from a large area outside with tall shrubbery and grass, the murder weapon could not be traced to the death slug, the mysterious removal of security for Dr. King hours before he was killed, and most importantly, Loyd Jowers, who admitted he was involved in a large conspiracy to kill King.
There were two juries. Twelve randomly selected men and women who hold memberships at the National Civil Rights Museum and the entire audience. Both juries had about 10 minutes to deliberate. The main jury returned with a vote of 10-2 Guilty, which at that time was acknowledged as a guilty verdict. However in a court of law, this verdict would have resulted in a hung jury or mistrial. The consensus audience voted 81% Not Guilty, 11% guilty, 8% abstain.
Dr. King’s assassination along with President Kennedy’s will forever be a subject for deep discussion and examination. The 6th floor museum held a mock trial as well for Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s accused assassin, and it too returned with a hung jury. While it is in print across the world that these two men were the only ones responsible for these American tragedies, a combined survey in the United States in both assassinations reports 78% of Americans believe that James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald would NOT have been found guilty if they were given a trial. The thousands of classified files on JFK and Dr. King will be released to the public in 2029. Until then, has justice been served? You be the Judge.