James Earl Ray

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James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray.jpg
Mug shot of Ray taken on July 8, 1955
Born(1928-03-10)March 10, 1928
DiedApril 23, 1998(1998-04-23) (aged 70)
Parent(s)James Gerald Ray
Lucille Ray
Conviction(s)Murder, prison escape, armed robbery, burglary
Criminal penalty99 years' imprisonment (one year was added after his re-capture for a total of 100 years)
VictimsMartin Luther King Jr.
DateApril 4, 1968

James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 – April 23, 1998) was an American fugitive and felon convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Ray was convicted in 1969 after entering a guilty plea—thus forgoing a jury trial and the possibility of a death sentence—and was sentenced to 99 years of imprisonment. At the time of his death, he had served twenty-nine years of his sentence.

Early life and education[edit]

Ray was born on March 10, 1928, in Alton, Illinois, the son of Lucille Ray (née Maher) and George Ellis Ray. He had Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestry and had a Catholic upbringing.[2]

In February 1935, Ray's father, known by the nickname Speedy, passed a bad check in Alton, Illinois, and then moved to Ewing, Missouri, where the family changed their name to Raynes to avoid law enforcement.[3] Ray was the firstborn of nine children,[4] including John Larry Ray,[5] Franklin Ray, Jerry William Ray,[6] Melba Ray, Carol Ray Pepper, Suzan Ray, and Marjorie Ray. His sister Marjorie died in a fire as a young child in 1933.[7] Ray left school at the age of 12. He later joined the U.S. Army at the close of World War II and served in Germany. Ray struggled to adapt to military life and was eventually discharged for ineptitude and lack of adaptability in 1948.[8]

Initial convictions and first escape from prison[edit]

Ray committed a variety of crimes prior to the murder of King. Ray's first conviction for criminal activity, a burglary in California, came in 1949. In 1952, he served two years for the armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois. In 1955, Ray was convicted of mail fraud after stealing money orders in Hannibal, Missouri, then forging them to take a trip to Florida. He served four years in Leavenworth. In 1959, Ray was caught stealing $120 in an armed robbery of a St. Louis Kroger store.[9] Ray was sentenced to twenty years in prison for repeated offenses. He escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967 by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery.[10]

Activity in 1967[edit]

Following his escape, Ray stayed on the move throughout the United States and Canada, going first to St. Louis and then onwards to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and Birmingham, Alabama, where he stayed long enough to buy a 1966 Ford Mustang and get an Alabama driver's license. He then drove to Mexico, stopping in Acapulco before settling down in Puerto Vallarta on October 19, 1967.[11]

While in Mexico, Ray, using the alias Eric Starvo Galt, attempted to establish himself as a pornographic film director. Using mail-ordered equipment, he filmed and photographed local prostitutes. Frustrated with his results and jilted by the prostitute with whom he had formed a relationship, Ray left Mexico on or around November 16, 1967.[12]

Ray returned to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on November 19, 1967. While in Los Angeles, Ray attended a local bartending school and took dance lessons.[13] His chief interest, however, was the George Wallace presidential campaign. Ray was a racist and was quickly drawn to Wallace's segregationist platform. He spent much of his time in Los Angeles volunteering at the Wallace campaign headquarters in North Hollywood.[14]

He considered emigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where a predominantly white minority regime had unilaterally assumed independence from the United Kingdom in 1965.[15] The notion of living in Rhodesia continued to appeal to Ray for several years afterwards, and it was his intended destination after King's assassination. The Rhodesian government expressed its disapproval.[16]

Activity in early 1968[edit]

On March 5, 1968, Ray underwent a facial reconstruction (rhinoplasty), performed by physician Russell Hadley.[17] On March 18, 1968, Ray left Los Angeles and began a cross-country drive to Atlanta, Georgia.[18]

Arriving in Atlanta on March 24, 1968, Ray checked into a rooming house.[19] He bought a map of the city. FBI agents later found this map when they searched the room in which he was staying in Atlanta. On the map, the locations of the church and residence of Martin Luther King Jr. were circled.[20]

Ray was soon on the road again and drove his Mustang to Birmingham, Alabama. There, on March 30, 1968, he bought a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster .30-06-caliber rifle and a box of 20 cartridges from the Aeromarine Supply Company. He also bought a Redfield 2x-7x scope, which he had mounted to the rifle.[21] He told the shopkeepers that he was going on a hunting trip with his brother. Ray had continued using the Galt alias after his stint in Mexico, but when he made this purchase, he gave his name as Harvey Lowmeyer.[22]

After purchasing the rifle and accessories, Ray drove back to Atlanta. An avid newspaper reader, Ray passed his time reading The Atlanta Constitution. The paper reported King's planned return trip to Memphis, Tennessee, which was scheduled for April 1, 1968. On April 2, 1968, Ray packed a bag and drove to Memphis.[23]

Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.[edit]

FBI most wanted fugitive poster of James Earl Ray
The Lorraine Motel, now known as the National Civil Rights Museum, where King was assassinated

On April 4, 1968, Ray killed King with a single shot fired from his Remington rifle, while King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw Ray fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the motel; he had been renting a room in the house at the time. A package was abandoned close to the site that included a rifle and binocular, both found with Ray's fingerprints.[24][25][26]

Apprehension and plea[edit]

Ray fled to Atlanta in his white Ford Mustang, driving eleven hours.[27][28] He picked up his belongings and fled north to Canada, arriving in Toronto three days later, where he hid for over a month and acquired a Canadian passport under the false name of Ramon George Sneyd. He left Toronto in late May on a flight to England.[29] He stayed briefly in Lisbon, Portugal, and returned to London.[30]

On June 8, 1968, two months after King's death, Ray was arrested at London Heathrow Airport attempting to leave the United Kingdom for Brussels on a false Canadian passport. He was trying to depart the United Kingdom for Angola, Rhodesia, or apartheid South Africa[31] on a false Canadian passport.[32] At check-in, the ticket agent noticed the name on his passport, Sneyd, was on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police watchlist.[33][34]

At the airport, officials noticed that Ray carried another passport under a second name. The UK quickly extradited Ray to Tennessee, where he was charged with King's murder. He confessed to the crime on March 10, 1969, his 41st birthday,[35] and after pleading guilty he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.[36]

Recanting of confession[edit]

Three days later, he recanted his confession. Ray had entered a guilty plea on the advice of his attorney, Percy Foreman, in an effort to avoid the sentence of death by electrocution, which would have been a possible outcome of a jury trial. Unbeknownst to Ray, however, under the de facto moratorium in place since 1967 and following Furman v. Georgia, a death sentence would have been commuted as unconstitutional.

Ray fired Foreman as his attorney and derisively called him "Percy Fourflusher" thereafter. Ray began claiming that a man he had met in Montreal back in 1967, who used the alias "Raul," had been deeply involved. Instead, he asserted that he did not "personally shoot Dr. King," but may have been "partially responsible without knowing it," hinting at a conspiracy. Ray told this version of King's assassination and his own flight in the two months afterward to journalist William Bradford Huie.

Huie investigated this story and discovered that Ray lied about some details. Ray told Huie that he purposefully left the rifle with his fingerprints on it in plain sight because he wanted to become a famous criminal. Ray was convinced that he would not be caught because he was so smart. Ray believed that Governor of Alabama George Wallace would soon be elected president and that he would only be confined for a short time.[37] Ray spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw his guilty plea and secure a trial.

Escape from prison[edit]

On June 10, 1977, Ray and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee. They were recaptured on June 13.[38] A year was added to Ray's previous sentence, increasing it to 100 years. While serving time in the early 1980s at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville, Ray asked to be interviewed by the news media on the anniversary of King's death. Dick Baumbach, the Tennessee Department of Corrections public information officer, coordinated the yearly interviews with local, state and national news media.

Conspiracy allegations[edit]

Ray had hired Jack Kershaw as his attorney, who promoted Ray's claim that he was not responsible for the shooting. His claim is that it was said to have been the result of a conspiracy of the otherwise unidentified man named "Raul." Kershaw and his client met with representatives of the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) and convinced the committee to conduct ballistics tests—which ultimately proved inconclusive—that they felt would show that Ray had not fired the fatal shot.[39]

Kershaw claimed the escape was additional proof that Ray had been involved in a conspiracy that had provided him with the outside assistance he would have needed to break out of prison. Kershaw convinced Ray to take a polygraph test as part of an interview with Playboy. The magazine said that the test results showed "that Ray did, in fact, kill Martin Luther King Jr. and that he did so alone." Ray fired Kershaw after discovering the attorney had been paid $11,000 by the magazine in exchange for the interview and instead hired attorney Mark Lane to provide him with legal representation.[39]

Mock trial and civil suit[edit]

In 1997, King's son, Dexter, had a meeting with Ray and asked him, "I just want to ask you, for the record, did you kill my father?" Ray replied, "No. No I didn't," and King told Ray that he, along with the King family, believed him; the King family also urged that Ray be granted a new trial.[40][41][42] William Pepper, a friend of King in the last year of his life, represented Ray in a mock trial televised by HBO in an attempt to grant him the trial he never received. In the mock trial, the prosecutor was Hickman Ewing. The mock trial finally jury acquitted Ray.[43]

In November 1999, Pepper represented the King family in a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers. Jowers, a restaurant owner in Memphis, was brought to civil court in December 1999 and sued for being part of a conspiracy to kill King. He was found legally liable, and the King family accepted $100 in restitution, an amount chosen to show that they were not pursuing the case for financial gain. The jury, concluding on December 8, found that Jowers as well as others, including governmental agencies, had been part of a conspiracy.[44] The King family concluded that Ray did not have anything to do with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.[45]

Coretta Scott King said, "The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband. The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame."[46][47][48][49]

Prompted by the King family's acceptance of some of the claims of conspiracy, United States Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a new investigation on August 26, 1998.[50] On June 9, 2000, the United States Department of Justice released a 150-page report rejecting allegations that there was a conspiracy to assassinate King, including the findings of the Memphis civil court jury.[50]


Before his death, Ray was transferred to the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, a maximum-security prison with hospital facilities.[51]

Ray died at age 70 on April 23, 1998, at the Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital from complications related to kidney disease and liver failure caused by hepatitis C.[52] His brother, Jerry, told CNN that his brother did not want to be buried or have his final resting place in the United States because of the way the government had treated him. His body was cremated and his ashes were flown to Ireland, the home of his maternal family's ancestors.[53] Ten years later, Ray's other brother, John Larry Ray, co-wrote a book with Lyndon Barsten, titled Truth At Last: The Untold Story Behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.[40]

Further reading[edit]

  • Green, Jim, Blood and Dishonor on a Badge of Honor[ISBN missing]
  • Heathrow, John, Why Did He Do It?[ISBN missing]
  • McMillan, George, The Making of an Assassin[ISBN missing]
  • Melanson, Dr. Philip H., The Martin Luther King Assassination: New Revelations on the Conspiracy and Cover-Up, 1968–1991[ISBN missing]
  • Pepper, William, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King[ISBN missing]
  • Posner, Gerald, Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[ISBN missing]
  • Ray, James Earl with Saussy, Tupper, Tennessee Waltz: The Making of a Political Prisoner[ISBN missing]
  • Ray, James Earl, Who Killed Martin Luther King?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin, Washington D.C.: National Press Books, 1992; ISBN 0-915765-93-4
  • Sides, Hampton, Hellhound on His Trail – The Stalking of Martin Luther King and the International Hunt for His Assassin, New York, Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52392-9
  • "James Gang". Snopes.com. January 17, 2010. Retrieved August 11, 2010.
  • Huie, William Bradford (1997). He Slew the Dreamer: My Search for the Truth About James Earl Ray and the Murder of Martin Luther King (Revised ed.). Montgomery: Black Belt Press. ISBN 978-1-57966-005-5.
  • Petras, Kathryn; Petras, Ross (2003). Unusually Stupid Americans: A Compendium of All-American Stupidity. Villard. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-8129-7082-1. Retrieved August 11, 2010.
  • Sides, Hampton (2010). Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Hunt for His Assassin. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-52392-9.


  1. ^ Jerome, Richard (May 11, 1998). "Dead Silence". People. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  2. ^ Ray, James Earl (1993). Who killed Martin Luther King?: the true story by the alleged assassin – James Earl Ray. ISBN 978-1882605026. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  3. ^ Gerald Posner, Killing The Dream 1998
  4. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (April 24, 1998). "James Earl Ray, 70, Killer of Dr. King, Dies in Nashville". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
  5. ^ Stelzer, C. D. (November 28, 2007). "The assassin's brother: John Larry Ray marks time in Quincy, still trying to set the record straight". Illinois Times. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
  6. ^ "James Earl Ray's Brother Dies". A Memoir of Injustice: Facebook Page. Facebook. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
  7. ^ "James Earl Ray Biography". Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
  8. ^ biography.com
  9. ^ Melanson, Philip H. (1994). The Martin Luther King Assassination. ISBN 978-1561711314. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  10. ^ Gribben, Mark. "James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, chapter 3". truTV Crime Library. truTV. Archived from the original on June 14, 2006. Retrieved June 25, 2006.
  11. ^ Sides 2010, p. 7.
  12. ^ Sides 2010, p. 33.
  13. ^ Sides 2010, pp. 47–48.
  14. ^ Sides 2010, p. 60.
  15. ^ Sides 2010, pp. 62–63.
  16. ^ Gerald Horne (2001). From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War against Zimbabwe, 1965–1980 (2000 ed.). University of North Carolina Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0807849033.
  17. ^ Sides 2010, pp. 87–88.
  18. ^ Sides 2010, pp. 90–91.
  19. ^ Sides 2010, p. 98.
  20. ^ Sides 2010, p. 302.
  21. ^ "Report of laboratory, FBI headquarters to Memphis, Apr. 17, 1968, FBI headquarters Murkin file 44-38861" (PDF). The Harold Weisberg Archive. Retrieved May 5, 2015.
  22. ^ Sides 2010, pp. 118–120.
  23. ^ Sides 2010, pp. 128–129.
  24. ^ Editors, History com. "Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassination". History.com. Retrieved July 15, 2020.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  25. ^ University, © Stanford; Stanford; California 94305 (April 24, 2017). "Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr". The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  26. ^ "Findings on MLK Assassination". National Archives. August 15, 2016. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  27. ^ "Findings on MLK Assassination". Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  28. ^ "James Earl Ray, 70, Killer of Dr. King, Dies in Nashville". Retrieved November 11, 2017.
  29. ^ "Why assassin James Earl Ray returned to Toronto". Thestar.com. June 6, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  30. ^ "Seeking answers on King's killer". April 4, 2008.
  31. ^ Clarke, James W. (2007). Defining Danger: American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists. Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0765803412.
  32. ^ Borrell 1968, p. 2.
  33. ^ Borrell, Clive (June 28, 1968). "Ramon Sneyd denies that he killed Dr King". The Times. London, UK. p. 2. Retrieved January 13, 2009.
  34. ^ R. Eyerman (2011). The Cultural Sociology of Political Assassination: From MLK and RFK to Fortuyn and van Gogh. Springer. pp. 62–. ISBN 978-0-230-33787-9.
  35. ^ Waters, David; Charlier, Tom (April 24, 1998). "Log Cabin Democrat: King assassin Ray dies after lifelong legal fight 4/24/98". Archived from the original on December 14, 2014. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
  36. ^ "1969: Martin Luther King's killer gets life". On This Day 1950–2005: March 10. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). March 10, 1969.
  37. ^ Huie 1997.
  38. ^ "Federal Bureau of Investigation – History of Knoxville Office". FBI. Archived from the original on May 24, 2008. Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  39. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (September 24, 2010). "Jack Kershaw Is Dead at 96; Challenged Conviction in King's Death". The New York Times. Retrieved September 25, 2010.
  40. ^ a b John Ray (brother of James Earl) on Fox at YouTube
  41. ^ Today in History March 27 at YouTube
  42. ^ Sack, Kevin (March 28, 1997). "Dr. King's Son Says Family Believes Ray Is Innocent". The New York Times. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  43. ^ "Ray Acquitted In Mock Trial 25 Years After King Slaying". Orlando Sentinel. April 5, 1993.
  44. ^ "Memphis Jury Sees Conspiracy in Martin Luther King's Killing". The New York Times. December 9, 1999.
  45. ^ Sack, Kevin (March 28, 1997). "Dr. King's Son Says Family Believes Ray Is Innocent". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 17, 2017.
  46. ^ "Complete Transcript of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassination Conspiracy Trial" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on August 26, 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2020.
  47. ^ Pepper, William; Gilardin, Maria (January 16, 2018). "The Execution of Martin Luther King – William Pepper (ONE of TWO)". TUC Radio. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  48. ^ Pepper, William; Gilardin, Maria (January 23, 2018). "The Execution of Martin Luther King, William Pepper (TWO of TWO)". TUC Radio. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  49. ^ "Assassination Conspiracy Trial Page". The King Center. Archived from the original on June 4, 2012. Retrieved February 11, 2021. This is the original King Center web page about the Assassination Conspiracy Trial. Includes the King Family Press Conference on the Verdict transcript.
  50. ^ a b Sniffin, Michael J. (June 10, 2000). "Justice Dept. finds no conspiracy in King assassination". The Hour. 129 (159). Norwalk, Connecticut. AP. p. A4. Retrieved October 22, 2015.
  51. ^ Yellin, Emily (March 28, 1998). "Third Inquiry Affirms Others: Ray Alone Was King's Killer". The New York Times. Retrieved March 9, 2017.
  52. ^ Gelder, Lawerence. "James Earl Ray, 70, Killer of Dr. King, Dies in Nashville". The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2015 – via nytimes.com.
  53. ^ "Autopsy confirms Ray died of liver failure". CNN. Nashville. April 24, 1998. Retrieved June 25, 2008.

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