From the March-April, 1997 issue (Vol. 4 No. 3) of Probe
In 1963, a popular political figure was shot in the back. The killer was not convicted. In his closing arguments to the jury, having laid out the evidence of the accused's guilt, the Assistant District Attorney responsible for the case asked the jury:
Where justice is never fulfilled, that wound will never be cleansed ....Is it ever too late to do the right thing?
And the Hinds County jury rose to the call, and made a bridge across history to right an old wrong. On Saturday morning, February 5, 1994, the Hinds County, Mississippi jury, over 30 years after the crime, convicted Byron de la Beckwith with the murder of one of the earliest civil rights activists of the 1960's: Medgar Evers.
The circumstances that brought this case from the dustbin of history back into the headlines and courtroom is an extraordinary one, detailed in the book Ghosts of Mississippi, by Maryanne Vollers (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1995) and depicted in a movie made from the book. Were it not for a courageous, tenacious Assistant District Attorney named Bobby DeLaughter, and a set of fortuitous circumstances, aided by the widow Myrlie Evers, this crime might have gone forever unsolved, unpunished. Fortunately for the Evers family and for history, DeLaughter was determined to bring this to trial, saying "We would have been derelict in our duty if we had not proceeded."
In 1987, DeLaughter's boss, District Attorney Ed Peters, had said he didn't think the case could be reopened. And most likely he would have been right, had it not been for a confluence of evidence that surfaced, such as a 1989 Jackson Clarion-Ledger article revealing the possibility of jury tampering in a previous trial; long-preserved court records from previous trials, held by the widow; and in a truly mystical twist of fate – the finding of the murder weapon in DeLaughter's ex-father-in-law's gun collection. And by the time of the trial, DeLaughter and his staff had found six people to whom Beckwith had bragged of his murder of Evers. No, in Mississippi, in 1994, it was not too late to see justice served.
But is it too late in Memphis? In an eerily preemptive comment made to USA Today in 1994, the NAACP's Earl Shinhoster had warned that the Evers victory might be a unique case, saying that it "would take something of proportion or magnitude"of what had happened in the Evers case to right other old wrongs, "which we may not ever get". On February 20, 1997, the family of Martin Luther King, together with William Pepper, lawyer for James Earl Ray, went before Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown to plead for new scientific tests to be performed on the alleged murder weapon. No match has ever been made between the bullet found in King and the weapon associated with Ray. Sophisticated tests could conceivably rule out Ray as the assassin.
As the last chance for the truth is fading with Ray's health, the family of Martin Luther King has stepped from the shadows of their own long-held doubts to call for a new hearing of evidence in the killing of the great leader. Spurred by the rapid deterioration of James Earl Ray, the man alleged to have been the assassin, Dexter King, the youngest son of Martin Luther King, spoke for his family in calling for a real trial. The King case was never tested in a court of law, since Ray immediately confessed, then recanted a couple of days later claiming his confession was coerced. "The lack of a satisfactory resolution to questions surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. has been a source of continuing pain and hardship to our family. Every effort must be made to determine the truth...this can only be accomplished in a court of law,"said Dexter to reporters, adding that the family members "...are united today in calling for the trial that never occurred. We make our appeal at this time because of concerns that Mr. Ray's illness may result in death, which will end the possibility of a trial ever to come.''
As reported in the last issue of Probe, Ray is deathly ill. In need of a liver transplant and in hospital care, this is his last chance to see the truth come out in his lifetime. His current lawyer, William Pepper, has written a book detailing much of the evidence that shows that Ray could not have committed such a crime without help, and that it is extremely unlikely that Ray committed the crime at all. In December of 1993, Lloyd Jowers, owner of the restaurant Jim's Grill, (located in the basement of the rooming house from which the shots were allegedly fired,) went on ABC's PrimeTime Live show to say that he been had asked to hire an assassin to kill King. The person he hired, he said, was not James Earl Ray. Jowers' confession came on the heels of an HBO-sponsored mock trial in which Pepper and others laid out the facts of the case before a jury. The jury in the HBO trial found Ray not guilty, but the facts uncovered in the process caused Jowers to ask for immunity if he told more of what he knew. When promises of immunity were not forthcoming, Jowers went into hiding.
Dexter and the family have harbored suspicions of a high level conspiracy involving forces in the government for 29 years, but have kept silent. Now, Dexter is finding his voice. "It's no secret that my father during that time was considered enemy No. 1 to the establishment. It's no secret that he was not the most favorite person of J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI."Citing his father's opposition to the Vietnam war, Dexter expanded upon this theme, suggesting that "There may have been individuals [in the government] who saw him as a major threat. The country was in turmoil at the time, I guess you could say civil unrest, and this frightened many people. So, certainly there would be adequate motive."