James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 -- April 23, 1998) was an American criminal convicted of the assassination of civil rights and anti-war activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ray was convicted on March 10, 1969, after entering a guilty plea to forgo a jury trial. Had he been found guilty by jury trial, he would have been eligible for the death penalty. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and tried unsuccessfully to gain a new trial. He died in prison of hepatitis C.
Martin Luther King was shot and killed by a sniper on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ray fled north to Toronto, Ontario, where he hid out for a month and acquired a Canadian passport under the false name of Ramon George Sneyd. On June 8, 1968, a little more than two months after King's death, Ray was captured at London's Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on the false Canadian passport. At check-in the ticket agent noticed the name on his passport -- Sneyd -- was on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police watchlist. 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, and after pleading guilty was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Three days later, he recanted his confession. Ray had entered a guilty plea on the advice of his attorney, Percy Foreman, in order to avoid a potential trial conviction, which could have led to a sentence of death. The method of execution in Tennessee at the time would have been electrocution.
Ray fired Foreman as his attorney and derisively called him "Percy Fourflusher," thereafter. Ray began claiming that a man he had met in Montreal, 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 sold this version of King's assassination and his own flight to William Bradford Huie. Huie investigated this story and discovered Ray sometimes lied. Ray told Huie he purposely left the rifle with his fingerprints on it in plain sight because he wanted to become a famous criminal. Ray was convinced he was so smart that he would not be caught. He believed Governor of Alabama George Wallace would soon be elected President, and Ray would only be confined for a short time. He spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw his guilty plea and secure a trial.
On June 11, 1977, Ray made his second appearance on the FBI Most Wanted Fugitives list, this time as the 351st entry. He and six other convicts had escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, on June 10, 1977. They were recaptured on June 13, three days later, and returned to prison. A year was added to Ray's previous sentence, to total 100 years.
Ray had hired Jack Kershaw as his attorney, who promoted Ray's claim that he was not responsible for the shooting, which 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 and convinced the committee to run ballistics tests — which ultimately proved inconclusive — that would show that Ray had not fired the fatal shot. Kershaw claimed that 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 jail. 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 that the attorney had been paid $11,000 by the magazine in exchange for the interview and hired conspiracy theorist Mark Lane to provide him with legal representation.