On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers strike, and was preparing to go to dinner when the bullet smashed his jaw and severed his spinal cord. Shortly after arriving at Memphis hospital, the 39-year-old civil rights leader was pronounced dead.
In the weeks following his death, police were able to implicate James Earl Ray based on a rifle found on the sidewalk a block away from the motel, eyewitness reports, and fingerprints. It took two months before they were able to locate and arrest Ray, who had fled to Canada after the assassination. He was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London, and was using a fake Canadian passport.
On March 10, 1969, also Ray’s 41st birthday, he pleaded guilty to MLK’s murder. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He recanted his confession three days later and tried for a retrial, saying that he had been under pressure from his lawyers, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Ray spent a great deal of his time in prison attempting to withdraw his guilty plea and claiming his innocence.
In the years following Ray’s arrest, Ray said he was part of a conspiracy that involved the government, who he claimed was behind the assassination. He said that he may have been unknowingly involved in the assassination, but did not personally shoot King.
In 1997, James Earl Ray met with the youngest son of Martin Luther King Jr., Dexter Scott King, and told him that he did not kill his father. King told Ray that “the King family was convinced of his innocence.” The New York Times reports that the following day, Dexter King declined to cite the evidence that convinced him of Ray’s innocence. When asked who he did think was responsible for his father’s death, the New York Times reports Dexter as saying, “I don’t know… My instincts tend to tell me when things are not right. I can’t always put my finger on it but I can say this, that I have felt this sense of suppression, that there are those forces out there that don’t want what has been in darkness to come to light.”
Ray was born in Alton, Illinois, in 1928. In 1945, he enlisted in the US Army, and served in Germany during World War II. In 1949, Ray was charged with robbing a cafe, and was forced to serve 90 days in jail. He committed several other crimes before MLK’s assassination– in 1952 he served two years for the armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois, and in 1955, he was convicted of mail fraud after stealing money orders in Missouri. Ray was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 1959 for repeated offenses after stealing $120 from a St. Louis grocery store, and in 1967, he managed to escape from the prison.
Ray traveled throughout the US and Canada during his escape, and he underwent facial reconstruction in March 1968, just one month before MLK’s assassination. Ray escaped prison for a second time in 1977, while he was serving his 99 year sentence, but was recaptured two days later.
On April 23, 1998, Ray died at the Louis M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville from complications related to kidney disease and liver failure caused by hepatitis C. He was 70, and had served 29 years in prison at the time of his death.