On April 3rd, 2008, the evening before the 40th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., CNN broadcast a two-hour documentary entitled Eyewitness to Murder-The King Assassination. The chief correspondent and host was CNN reporter Soledad O'Brien. Although I cannot call the production a clear and single-minded lone assassin screed, it was pretty close to that. And if you watched O'Brien question some of her interview subjects, she clearly had a four part agenda: 1.) to hammer home the case against James Earl Ray; 2.) to register as many doubts as possible about Ray's credibility; 3.) to trumpet the testimony of the law enforcement officials involved with the case; and 4.) to conclude with that hoary chestnut about the popularity of conspiracy theories: the American public just cannot accept the fact that a great and charismatic leader could be gunned down by a small-time hoodlum like Ray.
When I say that it was not a straight Ray-did-it production, that is a purely relative statement. The show did examine J. Edgar Hoover's racially tinged and neurotic campaign against King. It even produced some of the famous FBI COINTELPRO memos and talked about some of the surveillance activities used by Hoover against King. O'Brien interviewed people who believed in and have written about Ray's innocence. And she let them speak about it on camera, e.g. Jerry Ray and William Pepper. She talked about two problems in the case against Ray. She specifically stated that the bullet that killed King has never been matched to the rifle in evidence. And the fact that no person ever identified Ray either in the bathroom of the flophouse where he was supposed to have fired that rifle, or fleeing the scene.
But remember, I said "relatively". Because even in those instances, CNN was rather compromised. For example, they never depicted the worst of the COINTELPRO memos. And they never discussed the actual extreme practices that the Bureau initiated to achieve their goals. In that regard, one could have brought up the deadly and massive campaign against the Black Panthers. This featured the framing of innocent men like Geronimo Pratt, and the assassination of leaders like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. One could have tied that in with the presence of Marrell McCullough in Memphis plus the fact that there were actual cheers in the Atlanta FBI office when the news of King's murder was announced. (We will return to the McCullough issue later.)
Concerning the interviews of Ray and Pepper, although she lets them speak, she then spends a good deal of time afterwards trying to discredit what they say. For example, she repeatedly questions the existence of Raoul. This is the mysterious figure that Ray met in Canada, and who escorted him through a series of gunrunning operations in late 1967, all the way up to the assassination. Ray concluded that Raoul had set him up to take the fall for the King murder. Yet in discounting Ray on this, she ignores the fact that a man named Sid Carthew actually met Raoul in 1967. And he met him at the same bar in Montreal that Ray said he met him at. Finally, Carthew discussed the same thing--the sale of guns--that Ray and Raoul were involved in at the time. (Pepper, Orders to Kill pgs 343-344) She also ignores the strong testimony of former FBI agent Don Wilson. Wilson was one of the agents who recovered a white Mustang in Atlanta, allegedly one that Ray had abandoned there after King was killed. In an envelope in the car were two pieces of paper. They both had Raoul's name on them. One of them contained a list of names and entities followed by dollar amounts. The word Canada is also on the document, and the phrase "Before 4/15" is at the end. (The Assassinations, Eds. James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, p. 486) This is strong corroboration for Ray's specific story about Raoul. To say the least, it was no fairy tale.
In discussing the non-matching bullet evidence, she both understates it and covers things up. For instance, she says that the bullet that hit King fragmented upon impact, making it difficult to test afterwards. There are many witnesses who state that this is not what actually happened. Or could have happened. (Probe Vol. 6 No. 1 p. 25) They say that what actually occurred was that the bullet removed from King was intact. It was then sent to the FBI for analysis. It was returned in pieces. Further, when Judge Joe Brown began a rehearing on the case in 1996, he found that the photo of the originally intact bullet was missing from the case file. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 5 p. 29).
The rest of the special was even more questionably slanted than the above. For instance, O'Brien says that, after escaping from prison in 1967, Ray was involved in a bank robbery in his hometown of Alton, Illinois. And the money that was secured from this crime helped fund his numerous activities, purchases and travels in both Canada and the United States in 1967-68.
This, I think, is part of her aim to discredit Ray's reliance on Raoul as a source of funds. But as Pepper found out, there is nothing of any substance to make this bank robbery charge against Ray stick. In 1978, Pepper called one of the police officers in charge in Alton. He offered to return his then client, Jerry Ray, to Alton to stand trial for the crime. The officer replied that neither Jerry Ray nor any of his brothers were suspects. Further, they had never been suspects in that crime. The Department of Justice came to the same conclusion. The FBI analyzed the fingerprint impressions at the scene and said that the prints of James Earl Ray did not match any of the prints in the Alton bank robbery file. (Pepper, pgs 107-109)
O'Brien ignores all of this, and assumes no one knows anything about the issue. She then proceeds as if it was a given. Because she wants to use the twenty dollar denomination of stolen funds to somehow explain how Ray moved all around two countries for a year. For instance, when she mentions that Ray bought a car with cash, she adds that he paid for it in twenties. As if Raoul could not have been paying him in twenty-dollar bills. As if it was not a common denomination for large cash purchases at the time. Or today.
She also uses this "evidence" when she mentions the purchase of the 30.06 Remington Gamemaster rifle. Ray bought this weapon at the Aeromarine Supply Company in Birmingham, Alabama on March 30, 1968. Ray made this purchase under the name of Harvey Lowmeyer. And he said it was done at the request of Raoul. But O'Brien leaves out an interesting fact about the incident. On March 29th, Ray had purchased a .243 Winchester at the same store. The next day, he returned the Winchester and purchased the Remington. Why he did this or why Raoul would ask him to do so has never been explained. But it did give the attendant, who refused to appear on camera for CNN, an opportunity to clearly recall the incident, and remember Ray's face.
Speaking of this rifle, O'Brien makes one of the most irresponsible, laughable statements on the show. Looking at the glass-enclosed weapon with a museum attendant next to her, she describes the 200-foot shot as so easy that either of them could have made it. This statement was completely vitiated during Judge Joe Brown's ballistics hearings in Memphis in the late nineties. Brown, a very experienced marksman, determined that this particular rifle cannot be properly sited in manually. With this rifle, that process can only be done by a machine. A machine which Aeromarine Supply Company did not have at the time. Brown estimated that a non-practicing rifleman, which Ray was in 1968, would miss the target by twenty feet without that adjustment. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 5 p. 28) Brown also made another startling discovery about the ballistics evidence in this case. The bullet taken from King's body is not from the same lot as the other bullets purchased, and does not match the cartridges either. (Ibid. p. 29) Our indefatigable reporter never addressed these two issues. But they do help explain why Brown was never allowed to complete his ballistics investigation.
To further her rather superficial examination of the ballistics evidence, O'Brien interviews the Memphis Medical Examiner at the time, Jerry Francisco. He tells her that the shot could only have come from the rooming house window to end up hitting King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It could not have come from the bushy area outside both the rooming house and Jim's Grill. The latter is where more than one witness placed the sniper. But another study done by the Memphis City Engineers seems to contradict Francisco. They could not come to a definite conclusion on this issue. One reason for that was, shades of the JFK case, Francisco had not traced the path of the bullet through King's body. When asked about this point, "Francisco took the curious position that he was loathe to cause further mutilation for no good reason." (Pepper, p. 129) Another problem in solving this issue is that there is no photo that reveals King's exact posture at the time he was hit. But while she had Francisco on, O'Brien could have asked him about the condition of the slug when he removed it from King's body. There is a photo in the HSCA volumes apparently taken when he removed the bullet and it looks intact. (Pepper p. 221, 255) O'Brien could have asked him how it ended up in pieces, and why. She also could have asked Francisco if he tried to pilfer the King fragments from Brown's court while the judge was testing the rifle. Which is what Brown seemed to accuse him of later. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 5 p. 29) This kind of behavior, and the bizarre evidentiary record, caused Brown to say that, "What you've got here in terms of the physical evidence relating to ballistics ... is frightening." (Ibid) (For a thorough critique of Francisco's work on this case, which explains why his analysis raises so many questions, see Harold Weisberg's Martin Luther King: The Assassination pgs. 133-138)
Another area CNN skimps is the whole issue of Marrell McCollough. McCollough was the undercover cop who had infiltrated the radical black youth group the Invaders, prior to King's arrival in Memphis. And it was the Invaders who had provoked a show of violence during King's first visit to Memphis in March. They did this by disrupting a demonstration by the Sanitation Workers, who were on strike at the time. This incident actually resulted in the shooting death of a young man named Larry Payne. In turn, this caused King to make his return visit in April. McCollough's assignment was the result of a secret program inside the Memphis Police Department. But it had been ordered by Hoover, and assisted by the CIA. (Probe Vol. 7 No. 6 p. 4) Before joining the Memphis Police Department, McCullough had been in the army as an MP. His first assignment with the police was this one. As an agent provocateur with the Invaders, his reports were forwarded to the FBI. Besides helping provoke the King riot, he also helped set up a drug bust in which many of the Invaders top leadership were entrapped. A local reporter in Memphis once wrote that McCullough was working for the FBI before the Memphis police recruited him. (Ibid. p. 5) This strongly indicates that he was part of the COINTELPRO operation against both Black Nationalist groups, and perhaps, King. He stayed within the police department until he later joined the CIA in 1974. Three years later, he testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. When asked his occupation, he said he was a Memphis policeman. Which, at the time, he was not. Further, he denied any connection to any intelligence agencies in 1968. In other words, he lied. As Doug Valentine notes, he appears to have done this because the HSCA had evidence that it was McCullough who provoked the riot that caused the death of Larry Payne. And made necessary King's return, which resulted in his assassination. (Ibid.) All O'Brien has to say about the compelling and perhaps crucial figure of McCullough is this: he was a policeman who worked undercover against a Black Nationalist group. He ended up on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel after King was shot. Six years later he joined the CIA. That's about it. I'm not kidding.
The last part of the program was particularly offensive. O'Brien brought on attorney John Campbell. Campbell was the local DA in Memphis who did everything he could-and more--to obstruct Judge Brown. To the point where he eventually was removed from the case. (DiEugenio and Pease, pgs. 453-459) She allows him to critique two points: whether or not Raoul ever existed, and the testimony of Loyd Jowers. Concerning the first, he says Ray's description of Raoul changed over time. This is false. What Campbell is comparing is Ray's description of Raoul with a man who Pepper suspected was Raoul. It turned out not to be him. (Generally, Orders to Kill is a decent book that sometimes gets too ambitious. In those sections, Pepper's reach exceeded his grasp.) Loyd Jowers was the owner of Jim's Grill at the time of the assassination. In 1993, when Pepper won a mock trial on HBO acquitting Ray, Jowers went on ABC television with Sam Donaldson and confessed to a part in the murder. He said he supplied the actual sniper's rifle to a man in the bushes outside his establishment. A man who was not Ray. The weapon was later picked up by Raoul. Campbell properly states that Jowers later altered certain elements of his story. And he then completely clammed up at the civil trial when the King family sued him in civil court -- and won. (DiEugenio and Pease, pgs 492-509) But O'Brien leaves out an important reason why Jowers never got to testify in court under oath: He asked for full immunity from prosecution. He never got it from either the local DA (i.e. Campbell), or the Justice Department. (Probe, Vol. 7 No. 6 p. 3)
At the end, O'Brien tries to explain the rather strange conduct of the accused assassin after King's assassination. The official story says that he ran down the stairs of the flophouse and drove off in his white Mustang. But not before he left a bundle of his belongings next door, in front of Canipe's novelty store. This included things like a pair of binoculars, a can of beer, and the 30.06 rifle. Now this is a really odd thing for an assassin to do: leave an incriminating pile of your belongings next to the building where you just shot from. And critics of the official story have pointed at this incident as being quite unbelievable. So O'Brien trots out an old defense for it. She says Ray panicked when he saw a policeman down the sidewalk. This story has taken different forms throughout the years. It used to be that he saw a police car coming down the street. One of the problems with that particular version is that there was a field of rather high brush next to Canipe's. It would probably have blocked Ray's view of anyone either down the street or the sidewalk. But a piece of rather bracing evidence emerged on this point at the1999 King/Jowers civil trial. One of the witnesses was Arthur Hanes Jr. He and his late father composed Ray's first defense team. At the trial he testified that, in 1968, he interviewed Guy Canipe who was the owner of the store. Canipe told him that the bundle had been dropped about ten minutes before the assassination. (DiEugenio and Pease, p. 500) Needless to say, Hanes Jr. was on the show. Needless to say, O'Brien never asked him about this startling testimony.
All in all, a seriously disappointing effort. Not quite as bad as the network JFK specials by Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. But still, it's pretty shabby. In light of the recent Discovery Channel's documentary on the RFK case, I had hoped for more from a cable network. Next time, at least from CNN, I won't.