ATLANTA — Twenty-nine years after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis hotel balcony, Dr. King's family and James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King, find themselves agreeing on one issue: They want the case reopened.
At a court hearing Feb. 20 in Memphis, Mr. Ray's lawyer will ask a judge for permission to perform a ballistics test on the rifle believed to be the weapon used to kill King. The hearing is a crucial step in getting a trial for Ray, who waived his right to one in 1969 by pleading guilty. He later recanted and has sought a trial ever since.
King's family hopes a trial could uncover new evidence about who else might be involved in the assassination.
The campaign to revisit the civil rights leader's murder has taken on a tone of urgency. Doctors say that Ray, diagnosed as having a diseased liver, is not expected to live much longer. Concerned that time is running out, the King family last week broke its decades-long silence and is pushing for Ray's story to be heard in a court of law. The move is an attempt to resolve lingering questions and shines the spotlight again on various conspiracy theories that have swirled around King's death for years.
"Was it greed? Was it purely racial hatred? Was there some military extremism involved? I think those would be interesting questions for the country to have answers to," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Ray, a crook who escaped from jail before King's murder, has said a man named Raoul sent him to a gun shop in Alabama where he purchased a rifle said to have been used to kill King. Ray says Raoul hired him in a gun-running scheme. From there the two traveled to Memphis where Ray was registered in a false name at a flophouse behind the Lorraine Motel.
Federal authorities said Ray fired the shot that killed King from the flophouse, dropped the gun, and fled. Ray contends he was not the assassin, but fled when he heard authorities were looking for a man fitting his description.
Ray said he was bullied into pleading guilty and has asked for a trial seven times. He has also offered inconsistent stories and is considered an unreliable witness. But though few people believe Ray is innocent, many contend he didn't act alone. They question how the bumbling crook with the eighth-grade education could have single-handedly plotted the murder, executed it, and escaped with false identification, a passport, money, and airline tickets that took him to Canada, Portugal, and London before being arrested.
A number of people say Ray has told all he knows and that he will not offer anything new under oath. But they believe a trial could reveal the truth about others who may have been involved.
"The advantage of a trial is you get the opportunity to subpoena people who've never been forced to answer questions under oath, you get an opportunity to command documents, papers, and information that haven't been brought out before," Mr. Lowery says.
Conspiracy theories about the King case - some of which implicate racist groups, and others that even contend the FBI or CIA was involved - have existed for years, and a trial might help shed some light on these rumors.
Experts say conspiracy theories often abound in cases where the outcome of an important case doesn't fit the public's idea of a "just" world.
"[The King assassination] is a very important event in American history, and it's sort of demeaning to the event to have this sort of ... 'no-account guy' - Mr. Ray - be the sole source," says Joseph Sanders, a professor at the University of Houston's school of law. "It has a lot to do with our desire to find an important cause."
Despite the continued rumors, some argue that the conspiracy theory doesn't wash. "There've been investigations ... that didn't come up with anything hard and concrete beyond Ray's allegations and a whole series of circumstantial evidence that might lead one to believe that there were people who wanted King dead," says Dan Carter, a history professor at Emory University. "But ... I've never seen any information that has led me to believe that there was a conspiracy which actually was carried into effect."
At Thursday's hearing, Ray's lawyer will try to win a trial by convincing a judge that ballistics tests - technology developed since Ray's conviction - should be used to determine if the rifle Ray is believed to have used is the murder weapon. Still, the chance of a trial is slim even if the tests are conducted, because the courts have already turned Ray down seven times, according to the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case.
Some people, such as Mr. Lowery, suggest winning a trial might have been more likely if the King family had publicly supported one before now.
But King's son Dexter says the family had kept silent because of the painful nature of the tragedy. "We wanted to accept things as they were," Mr. King said at a press conference last week. But "we all decided to come forward and make a statement about something that's haunted us for years.... Our hope is that a trial will help bring closure and reconciliation needed for healing, not only to our family but to the nation."