Conspiracy Theories About MLK's Death Continue, But Investigators Say Case Is Closed

Apr 3, 2018
Originally published on April 3, 2018 6:19 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Right now, a report from justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. She has been looking into why conspiracy theories continue to flourish about the murder of Martin Luther King.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Walter Cronkite broke the news to his TV audience the night of April 4, 1968.

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WALTER CRONKITE: Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tenn. Police have issued an all-points bulletin for a well-dressed young white man seen running from the scene.

JOHNSON: After an international manhunt, authorities apprehended James Earl Ray at an airport in London. Ray, a sometime bank robber, pleaded guilty to King's murder in 1969, in part to avoid the death penalty. But Ray backtracked on the story days later, and that has left some room for doubt ever since. Eight years after King's death in 1976, Congress launched its own investigation.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The House Select Committee on Assassinations held its first public hearing today on the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. Representative Walter Fauntroy delivered opening statements.

WALTER FAUNTROY: Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that truth crushed to Earth will rise again. We are making a serious effort to establish what in fact was the truth.

JOHNSON: The effort was serious. Disclosures that King had been hounded by the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, gave rise to lots of questions about possible government involvement in his death. The House committee hired engineers to trace the path of the bullet that hit King as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. They enlisted forensic experts to study the autopsy report, and they interviewed lots of witnesses. One was the convicted killer, James Earl Ray. G. Robert Blakey was the chief counsel to the House Select Committee.

G ROBERT BLAKEY: And so we worried about - was there somebody else involved in King's death?

JOHNSON: The House investigation found Ray had purchased the rifle likely used to shoot King, and Blakey says he found no involvement by the FBI or the Ku Klux Klan. But he still wonders whether Ray was motivated by the lure of a financial reward.

BLAKEY: The truth of the matter is conspiracy investigations need to be made at the time of the crime.

JOHNSON: Blakey says the FBI could not win approval for wiretaps to snoop on Ray's brothers at the time, and so a key question lingered without a decisive answer. Meanwhile, from prison, Ray continued to maintain his innocence. He attracted allies like William Pepper, who became his lawyer. Here's Pepper in a 2013 interview about that relationship.

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WILLIAM PEPPER: I spent five hours interrogating Ray with enormous tension and pressure. We all came away, said this guy didn't - this guy didn't do it.

JOHNSON: Pepper appealed the case. He tried the Supreme Court - no luck.

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PEPPER: It looked like we were at the end of the road. And then I came up with an idea that - well, look, why don't we try to have a real trial on television?

JOHNSON: HBO broadcast that mock trial in 1993, and the TV jury found Ray not guilty. The media interest attracted some new voices, voices like Lloyd Jowers, who owned a bar and grill near the motel in Memphis. Here he is with Sam Donaldson on ABC in 1993.

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SAM DONALDSON: Mr. Jowers, did James Earl Ray kill Dr. Martin Luther King?

LLOYD JOWERS: No, he did not.

DONALDSON: Do you know who killed Dr. King?

JOWERS: I know who was paid to do it.

JOHNSON: That account from Lloyd Jowers provoked a new round of questions about King's murder. James Earl Ray, ailing and serving a 99-year prison sentence, once again pushed for a way to reopen the case and thus began another investigation. Local prosecutors in Memphis were looking at claims by Jowers and others.

JOHN CAMPBELL: There was a lot of people that, yes, all of a sudden just came out of the woodwork.

JOHNSON: John Campbell was an assistant district attorney at the time. Investigators went back and interviewed people who were at Jowers' bar and grill in 1968. Campbell says many of those people failed to back him up. And Jowers himself changed his tune from what he told the FBI at the time of the murder.

CAMPBELL: Within a couple of weeks, we pretty much figured that this first story was not going to go anywhere. It wasn't true.

JOHNSON: Something else was happening around that time - another investigation, this one by the U.S. Justice Department under President Bill Clinton. Veteran civil rights prosecutor Barry Kowalski led the effort.

BARRY KOWALSKI: We conducted a conscientious and a thorough investigation. And just like the four official investigations before it, found no credible evidence or reliable evidence that Dr. King was killed by conspirators who framed James Earl Ray.

JOHNSON: Prosecutors interviewed 200 witnesses and reviewed tens of thousands of documents. They found Jowers and the theory of a government-directed conspiracy were not credible, and they discounted other allegations, claims the murder was somehow linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Again, Barry Kowalski.

KOWALSKI: Now, 20 years later, I remain absolutely convinced that those well-founded findings were correct.

JOHNSON: Still, doubters remained. Three of the men who investigated the crime told NPR the case will never be closed in some people's minds. Blakey, who drafted the federal wiretapping and racketeering laws, said there's almost too much evidence in the King case. John Campbell, the former assistant district attorney in Memphis, says he still gets questions about his investigation.

CAMPBELL: You just don't think these powerful people, these people who are larger than life, can be killed by just some, you know, nobody with a gun. You know, it has to be more. It has to be more involved. Well, sometimes, there's not more involved.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.