James Earl Ray's Undying Appeal for Freedom

Joe Brown, of the syndicated television program, "Judge Joe Brown," discusses presiding over the final appeal of convicted King assassin James Earl Ray. Also joining the discussion is Ray's former attorney, William Pepper, author of An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

We are going to continue our conversation about the King assassination. James Earl Ray died in 1998. And shortly after pleading guilty to Dr. King's assassination, he recanted and insisted throughout his life that others were involved. With the support of the King family, Ray sought a new trial. His attorney was William Pepper. The judge in that case in the late 1990s was Joe Brown. And they both join us now. Welcome to the show.

Mr. WILLIAM PEPPER: (Attorney for James Earl Ray) Thank you. Good to be with you.

Judge JOE BROWN (Judge, Author of "An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King"): Thank you.

CORLEY: You heard the interview that we had with Louis Stokes. What do you make of his continued support for the House Committee report?

Judge BROWN: Typical Congressional incompetence, that's the way I look at it. Our government is the pits these days, from top to bottom.

Mr. PEPPER: Yeah. Not much change.

Judge BROWN: This is reflective of it.

Mr. PEPPER: Yeah. Not much change at all. I mean, Congressman Stokes is 30 years out-of-date. I think here was a time when we all hoped that that committee would come down with answers to some hard questions. And they never did. And that was the reason that a private investigation had to begin.

CORLEY: Mr. Pepper, during any assassination, I think conspiracy theories abound. You've done extensive study. What are the accounts that you were able to gather that kind of contradict the conclusions of the committee that investigated Dr. King's death?

Mr. PEPPER: It took about 30 years, but gradually, over a period of time, people came forward with evidence that were not prepared to talk earlier and had never been interviewed by the Select Committee on Assassinations. There were witnesses who saw smoke rising from the brush right after the shooting. There was never - as Judge Brown is an expert in this field - there never was an adequate ballistics identification or matching of the throw-down gun to the death slug. The crime scene was destroyed the next morning. Eventually, a man called Lloyd Jowers came forward when he was very close to dying, and he actually thought he may be indicted at that point, and he came forward.

And he indicated everything that he knew, which involved him taking the gun from the shooter, having the assassination planned in his own cafe, named the Memphis police officers who were present there. So, all of these things evolved over a period of years, and we were so fortunate to get Judge Joe Brown, because we knew Judge Brown was prepared to look at the evidence and let it take us wherever it would lead.

CORLEY: Well, in 1997, I was actually in Memphis at the hearing where you were presiding, Judge, and you heard an appeal, but at that point, you...

Judge BROWN: It wasn't an appeal. It was a motion - a petition for post-conviction relief. The only factual basis they had to tie Ray in with the case was his so-called rifle. The bullet they pulled out of Dr. King's body has a one and 11 inch rate of rifling twist, which is very odd for that time, 1968.

There were about 82 barrels custom-made that had that rate of rifling twist and it certainly wasn't the one that James Earl Ray was using. Now, I'm going to tell you what my investigation over the last ten years has revealed. Dr. King was shot with an M-21, which is a specially accurized(ph) edition of the M-14 semi-automatic weapon that the military used.

There was a two-man team that shot him from the firehouse tower. They had rehearsed this at some great length a few weeks prior to this. When Dr. King was shot, the FBI never conducted any ballistic tests. The people that took this shot were professionals.

CORLEY: Mr. Pepper, I would imagine that you agree with most of what Judge Brown has said. You have done extensive investigations yourself. But it's interesting, because not only did you represent James Earl Ray, you were also the attorney for the King family in a civil lawsuit in which James Earl Ray was exonerated. So tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. PEPPER: Several lawsuits went on for 30 days, and there were 70 witnesses. Judge Brown testified as a witness at that - in those proceedings, with respect to the ballistics. It took the jury 59 minutes after 30 days of trial to find 70 percent liability on behalf of the government. I agree with what Joe Brown is saying in terms of ballistics.

He's - no question about it. Our investigation, which went on over, well, now, 30 years, although I've drawn a line under it basically. We found that there was an eight-man sniper unit. They were a backup. They did not kill Dr. King. The witnesses that we found very clearly said - and it took me 25 years to get Betty Spates to finally say what she had been holding out over all those years.

That she saw Jowers run in the backdoor of his place with a rifle still smoking. And Jowers, he agreed that he had participated in it, he had helped plan it, he'd taken 100,000 dollars from Frank Liberto, but he was not the shooter. The shooter, Judge Brown is quite right, was a pro, and...

CORLEY: One last question to you both, then, because we have to let you go. You both, then, have done these deep investigations, have come out with something totally different from what we are taught in history classes and have learned over the years. Do you think there will be any other type of resolution to this?

Mr. PEPPER: Well, the King family is happy that they have closure. Mrs. King died with the understanding that she realized why Martin King was killed. And it had to do, one, with massive opposition to the war in Vietnam, which was going to the bottom lines of a number of corporate friends of Lyndon Johnson.

And secondly, his desire to bring a half million people to Washington. And - the military's fear that that half a million people in Washington, visiting their legislators, trying to get social programs back in, that would've been taken out from the war, the military was certain that that was going to become violent.

They were going to have a revolution on their hands. Remember, 100 cities burned that previous year. There was almost a revolution in Paris. They were very, very nervous that a man of Martin's stature was going to bring that group to Washington, and they thought it would get out of control. He was never going to be allowed to leave Memphis.

CORLEY: William Pepper was an attorney for James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King. He's author of the book "An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King," and he joined us from our New York studios. And Judge Joe Brown, who presided over James Earl Ray's last appeal, joined us from WKNO from Memphis. Thank you both for joining us.

Judge BROWN: Thank you.

Mr. PEPPER: Glad to be here.

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