Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King

The Plea

Ray was extradited to the United States and quickly returned to Memphis where he was placed in a specially constructed cell under 24-hour guard. Steel plates were placed over the windows of his cell, which required lights to be kept on in the cell constantly. Ray had attempted in Britain to hire F. Lee Bailey to handle his case in the United States, but Bailey refused. Ray then turned to Arthur J. Hanes Sr., an Alabama lawyer who had served as city commissioner of Birmingham while the notorious Bull Connor served as the city's police chief. Hanes also defended three Ku Klux Klansmen accused of murdering a Detroit woman who participated in civil rights marches in Selma. A supporter of George Wallace, Hanes was voted out of office by the citizens of Birmingham in an effort to cleanse the city's racist image.

A well-known racist organization, the "Patriotic Legal Aid Fund" of Savannah, Georgia offered to pick up the costs of defending Ray, but Hanes told Ray he would have no part in his defense if the Patriotic Legal Aid Fund were involved. Instead, Hanes told Ray of the offer by Huie to pay up to $40,000 to Ray — to be signed over to his attorneys — if Ray would tell Huie his true story. While still in London, Ray agreed to that agreement and Hanes and his son Arthur, Jr. were hired as Ray's sole legal advisors.

Ray was returned to Memphis in mid-July by Air Force jet. A few days later, after meeting privately with Ray, Hanes released this statement: "From August 1967 when he met Raoul in Montreal, down to King's death, he moved at Raoul's direction. ...He delivered the rifle to Raoul, and then from about 4:30 to nearly 6 he sat downstairs in Jim's Grill drinking beer, waiting for Raoul. He says it was Raoul who fired the shot, and ran down the stairs, and threw down the rifle, zipper bag, and jumped in the Mustang where Ray was waiting, and the two drove off together."

When he was asked whether he believed Ray's statement, Hanes said: "I believe some of it. Unless Ray is a complete damned fool, I don't see how he could have made the decision to kill King. Before King was killed, Ray was doing all right.... Why would he jeopardize his freedom by killing a famous man and setting all the police in the world after him? I have to believe either he didn't do the killing, or if he did, he did it because he was caught in a conspiracy and couldn't get out."

After 10 weeks of trying to investigate Ray's claims and coming up empty, Hanes went to Ray with the bad news. "With all the evidence that exists against you, there is no way you can go to trial on a not guilty plea without risking a death sentence," Hanes told Ray. "The people of Tennessee are talking a lot about law and order now. They are tired of so much crime. So this could be the time they decided to use the chair again." Hanes told Ray he saw no chance of an acquittal in the case, which Ray did not want to hear. Hanes' honesty with his client — who was clearly not forthcoming with information to his attorney — turned off Ray and it was only a matter of time before Arthur Hanes was taken off the case.

Percy Foreman (CORBIS)
Percy Foreman (CORBIS)

In November, Ray fired Hanes and hired Texan Percy Foreman to take his case. Foreman was an extremely competent attorney: by 1958 he had defended 778 accused murderers. One was executed, 52 were sent to prison. The remaining 705 were acquitted of the crimes. Ten years later he had defended another two hundred murderers. Just one was sent to prison on a life sentence.

Foreman spent 30 hours listening to Ray and working with Huie, whose investigation of the case revealed details that even the FBI had missed. As the date of Ray's trial grew nearer, Foreman sat down with Ray. "I assume that you know I can't get you out of this?"

"Yeah, I know you can't," Ray told him.

Foreman tried to convince Ray that his cause was hopeless. "Why go to trial?" he asked. "A defendant in your position should never risk the death penalty unless he has some chance for acquittal. You have absolutely no chance for acquittal."

There was no secret that many people in Memphis on both sides of the issue didn't want Ray to have a trial. A long, expensive affair filled with race-baiting and ethnic hatred would do no good in the city's already tense atmosphere. Conspiracy theorists assume that another reason no one wanted a trial was to keep Ray from revealing everything he knew in open court.

Eventually, Foreman was able to convince Ray to plead guilty. In his lengthy statement, Ray admitted that he "fired a shot from the second floor bathroom of the rooming house and fatally wounded Dr. Martin Luther King who was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel." Monday, March 10, 1969 was set for Ray to enter the courtroom of Judge Preston Battle and enter his guilty plea in return for a sentence of 99 years.

In his appearance before Judge Battle that Monday morning, Ray admitted that his plea was entered without coercion and that he waived his right to a trial. He further admitted that he killed King, but added he "was not saying there had been no conspiracy, because there had been."

On Thursday of that week, Ray, in a Nashville prison, wrote to Battle: "I wish to inform the Honorable Court that famous Houston attorney Percy Fourflusher is no longer representing me in any capacity. My reason for writing this letter is that I intend to file for a post conviction hearing..." Ray intended to revoke his guilty plea. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but James Earl Ray was never given a trial for the slaying of King.


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