Friday, 15 August 1997 23:33

Dexter King Continues His Long March

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A report on some of the ongoing media reaction to the King-Pepper-Ray trial.


From the July-August, 1997 issue (Vol. 4 No. 5) of Probe


As we went to press, the test results ordered by Memphis Judge Joe Brown on the alleged rifle used to kill Martin Luther King have not yet been finalized. In mid-June CNN filed a story saying that the first tests run as a result of the judge's order came back inconclusive. The lead firearms investigator for the defense, Robert Hathaway, asked to conduct another round of testing. The story stated that an inadequate cleaning of the rifle may have necessitated the repeat process.

In May, the state of Tennessee decided to rule out a trip to Pittsburgh for a possible liver transplant for King's alleged assassin James Earl Ray. Ray's doctors say he has a liver disease and may not be able to survive much longer without such an operation. Ray wants to be evaluated at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has one of the leading organ transplant programs in the world. Reportedly, this issue will be discussed in court at a later time. If the rifle tests come back as Ray's lawyer, Bill Pepper expects – i. e. showing that the fatal bullet did not come from Ray's weapon – Judge Brown could order a new trial. Although trials in absentia have been held, in this case Ray wants to testify at his trial. So public pressure could be applied for the transplant. In an interview with Reuters on June 27th, Ray stated, "There are a lot of people who think I should get the transplant." He added the fact that the King family supported his request and that should be a "strong point" in his favor.

The involvement of King's survivors has really been Pepper's greatest achievement and has given the most ballast to the move for a new trial. Dexter King's well-publicized spring meeting with Ray, featured on the cover of our last issue, has propelled the MLK case into the mainstream media eye. As Lisa Pease has noted, Dexter's new prominence has forced the establishment to trot out some grizzled veterans to lead the attacks on Pepper and Ray: Dick Billings, Priscilla Johnson, and Robert Blakey. In the interim from spring to summer, the coverage has improved, but only incrementally.

On June 8th, the Washington Post featured a column by Jim Lesar of the Assassination Archives and Research Center. Lesar had been Ray's attorney in the early seventies. In the article, Lesar wrote:

My own view is that Ray did not shoot King. And though he was in Memphis at the time and likely involved with the people who did, there is substantial evidence that suggests he was not aware that King was going to be killed.

Lesar went on to single out two aspects of Pepper's book, Orders to Kill, he considers especially compelling. The first aspect is the accumulation of five affidavits, including Ray's, identifying the mysterious "Raul," the apparent CIA operative who Ray states maneuvered him around Montreal and then the U.S. prior to King's murder. Second, Lesar mentions the role of Lloyd Jowers who ABC's Sam Donaldson interviewed twice, once in 1993 and again earlier this year. Jowers has stated that he paid a man to shoot King in Memphis. Jowers also has said that he was visited by a "Raul" who, Lesar writes, "delivered a rifle to him and asked him to hold it until final arrangements were made." The attorney went on to detail certain holes in the official case against Ray. Lesar's piece was a creditable and objective essay that did not ignore the national overtones of the crime:

Ray has a right to the trial he never had. But the country also deserves such a trial. With Ray's death, we shall lose our last best chance to clear up just what happened during a painful moment of our history.

There were two other national media organs who felt compelled to comment on the King-Pepper-Ray ongoing drama.

Emerge bills itself as "Black America's Newsmagazine." It is published ten times a year and has a circulation of 150,000. It is a subsidiary of Black Entertainment Television, a popular cable TV offering. In their current July/August issue, the cover story asks "Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King?" Writer Les Crane and the magazine had a not-so-subtle angle in the presentation of the story. Referring to Dexter King's belief in Ray's innocence, they term this a "strange assertion." Introducing Ray, they call him a "cagey convict" who "was steadfastly shopping for a new trial – and an organ transplant." Referring to Pepper, the pejorative used is that he "has wrangled for a movie deal." Payne then proceeds to actually put some stock in the House Select Committee hearings on the King case. Payne also quotes Jessie Jackson on Ray's testimony during the Robert Blakey helmed HSCA hearings: "That Raoul shit is getting thinner and thinner."

Blakey himself figured in a program seen by millions in regard to the attempt to get a trial in the King case. On June 19th, ABC presented a one hour telecast devoted entirely to the King case. Turning Point is a newsmagazine with three rotating hosts: Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Forrest Sawyer. This installment was hosted by the last, which is interesting. Back in 1991, when Oliver Stone's JFK was opening, the director made an appearance on ABC's Nightline. Ted Koppel was not the host that night. Forrest Sawyer was. To say the least, the show's format – it opened with a long, carefully edited montage which was negative to Stone, the film, and Jim Garrison – and Sawyer himself, were not fair to Stone.

Turning Point featured a wide variety of interviews: King's friend and colleague Andrew Young, Coretta King and all four of her children, Memphis pastor Billy Kyles, former New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell, Blakey, King biographer Dave Garrow, journalist Steve Tompkins, and Pepper himself. Predictably, of the guests, the two resisting a new trial for Ray were Garrow and Blakey. Early on Garrow stated:

I think the King family has been the victim of very bad advice and counsel. What we have here is a situation that is sad and disappointing. James Earl Ray's guilt is proven.

Most people would think that a family standing together and demanding, at great personal expense, the truth about a loved one's death is anything but sad and disappointing. Most would call it courageous and inspiring. Some would even hope that John F. Kennedy Jr. and his sister would do likewise. And, as far as facts and evidence go, in the closest thing to a real trial that Ray had – HBO's mock trial in 1993 with Pepper as his lawyer – the verdict was for acquittal.

Blakey, who has become a sound bite propagandist since the release of JFK, said something just as inexplicable:

We still prosecute people who murder civil rights leaders. We did. His name's James Earl Ray. If there are other suspects out there that evidence can be developed in, I'd rather see them prosecuted, rather than given an opportunity to write a book.

Blakey seems to have forgotten the history of the case he studied for two years. In the truest sense of the word, Ray was never prosecuted. As Pepper and others have shown, he was coerced into pleading guilty by Percy Foreman in order to avoid the electric chair. Further, Foreman presented the prosecution's case to him and told him that if he did not plead guilty that he would not give his case his best effort. Blakey, a law professor, never addresses the legal ethics involved in this or the fact that Foreman and Ray's first lawyer, Arthur Hanes, agreed to take money from someone who was writing a book, William Bradford Huie, in exchange for channeling information to him from their client. They then talked Ray into agreeing to this as a way of paying their fees. Also, in the nearly thirty years since the murder, no legal authorities, including Blakey, have ever seriously considered formal accomplices in the crime. So how could anyone suggest, as Blakey does, prosecuting "other suspects."

Further, on the point of Ray's guilty plea, what Blakey and Garrow never note is that at the plea hearing, Ray went on the record as saying that he did not agree with Ramsey Clark and Hoover's ideas on the subject of conspiracy, or lack of it, in the case. He specifically named those two men, as well as the DA in court, as expressing theories he did not agree with.

Some of Turning Point was good and valuable. ABC showed some archival footage of the murder scene and the events which followed, plus some photographs, which I don't recall seeing before. Andrew Young was allowed to voice his plea for a "Truth Commission" on the King case. This would be modeled on the present hearings going on in South Africa presided over by Desmond Tutu. Witnesses with worthwhile information are granted immunity in return for full disclosure so the nation can proceed with a cleansing process through the eventual unraveling of the truth. The program also went into Hoover's attacks on King, both open and clandestine.

Perhaps the most impressive guest was former New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell. Caldwell has been consistent in his testimony that he saw a man in the bushes below King's room after the shooting. He also revealed that no one from any investigation "ever came to me and asked me even one question, ever." Further, he was the only person on the program to ask for full file disclosure:

I do think that we ought to open up every file that the government is holding, that tells us anything about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We can look in the files and determine the integrity of the investigation. We can do that.

Predictably, Sawyer constructed a trap for Pepper in the second half of the program. Towards the end of Pepper's book he details the tale of an Army special forces group sent to Memphis in April of 1968 to surveil King. Working from interviews conducted by reporter Steve Tompkins, Pepper writes that they received a special briefing and were told to actually terminate King. They would have if he would not have been fired upon already. According to Tompkins' sources, one of the leaders of this group, Bill Eidson, later died. Sawyer took Pepper through this part of his book, questioning his methodology, and then produced Eidson and a cohort. Although Pepper held up fairly well through this elaborate set-up, he had been sandbagged. Strangely, and although the sequence was probably edited to favor Sawyer, he doesn't seem to have seen it coming. Tompkins was also on the show and he implies that Pepper went too far with the material he had given him. But also, neither Tompkins nor Pepper appear to have checked out their military intelligence sources with the utmost scrutiny.

This reflects on another aspect of the Bill Pepper-Dexter King alliance. Both Dexter and Pepper of late have been quoted as saying that President Johnson either knew of the King plot or was in on it. For instance, Sawyer asked both about Johnson's knowledge of the plot and Pepper and King both replied in the affirmative. Dexter defended his position, rather naively, by saying:

Well, based on the evidence that I've been shown, I would think that it would be very difficult for something of that magnitude to occur on his watch and he not be privy to it.

By this logic, one could have asked Kennedy how he could not have known about the plots to kill Lumumba, Castro and himself. Intelligence agencies do this all the time. As Victor Marchetti told me in an interview in 1993, Richard Helms specifically told him not to tell Johnson about an operation that had been discussed at a meeting just concluded. Also, the accusations against Johnson are the least supported in Pepper's (generally) good book. This is not meant to rule out the possibility, but rather to comment on the wisdom of going public with the accusation, especially with the klieg lights bearing down on you.

There may be something at work behind the scenes here. On January 19, 1997, Pepper did an interview with Ian Masters on his show Background Briefing carried on Pacifica radio. On that program, Pepper commented on the recent rush of new information he had been getting from various sources. This, in itself, would make an experienced field investigator leery. But he then described one of these sources as a former naval intelligence officer who was now working as a featured reporter at a newspaper. This could be Tompkins or Bob Woodward. We hope it's not the latter. As readers will recall from our special Watergate issue (Vol. 3 No. 2), no reporter did more to bury the real truth of that case with the major media than Woodward.

There was one – perhaps inadvertently – truthful and poignant moment on the show that almost redeemed the antics pulled on Pepper. Going through a montage of all those who opposed King – black militants, white racists, even Sen. Robert Byrd – the camera came back to his wife, who related the story of how they were together when they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. They were sitting together when King turned to his wife and said prophetically: "That's exactly what's going to happen to me."

Last modified on Sunday, 16 October 2016 15:27
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and Reclaiming Parkland (2013/2016), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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