In 2012, Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock published their first book about the murder of Martin Luther King, titled The Awful Grace of God. A few months after it appeared I wrote a review of that book for this web site that went into considerable detail about its numerous, significant deficiencies. As I pointed out in my review, The Awful Grace of God presented a solution to the assassination that was simply not supported by any credible evidence. The idea, as proposed by the authors, that alleged assassin James Earl Ray took up a bounty being offered on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King by right-wing extremists is based almost entirely on speculation and wishful thinking.
I noted that Wexler and Hancock relied much too heavily on unreliable witnesses and irresponsible, untrustworthy authors like George McMillan, Gerald Posner and William Bradford Huie. I concluded that this fact caused them to accept and promote a dubious portrait of Ray, as well as to repeat long-discredited or disputed stories about his behaviour and activities before the assassination. I also showed how the authors had chosen to do little more than skim the surface of the crime scene evidence, omitting that which tends to exculpate Ray. By doing that they ignored the very real indications that King had been intentionally placed in a vulnerable position and stripped of any meaningful security.
Whilst Hancock showed little interest in my review one way or the other, Wexler was seemingly incensed by what I wrote. In an email shortly after it appeared he told me that he viewed my review as “a hit piece that fundamentally misrepresented key aspects of our book, and the facts of the case.”1 It is not surprising, then, that the authors have elected to address my review in the endnotes of their second book on the subject, Killing King: Racial Terrorists, James Earl Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. What is surprising, however, is the sloppy and less than candid manner in which they have done so.
In source note 22, on page 265 of Killing King, the authors write:
Hay’s critical review of our earlier work is riddled with egregious errors that will be discussed in various endnotes and in the epilogue. The pull quote, at the beginning of the review for instance, claims that we “put Ray” at the Grapevine when we, in fact, never say that. Instead, we argue that Ray could have maintained some form of contact with the plotters by way of his brothers, who ran the bar. In the earlier book we say that Ray did not immediately pursue the plot after escaping prison; in this update we do. Hay goes on to claim that we have no credible evidence that Ray ever heard of a bounty. But to make this claim Hay dismisses the accounts of prisoners like Britton. He makes a blanket statement that all the prisoners who directly heard of Ray discussing a plot were looking for more lenient prison sentences and/or bounty rewards. But he has no actual evidence of this for any prisoner―Hay is the one speculating, not us. As a point of fact, Thomas Britton, who heard Ray discuss a $100,000 offer from a businessman’s association, was not even in prison at the time he made his claim and expressly said he did not want a reward. Brown confirmed hearing Ray discuss a bounty years after the fact.
There is so much wrong with the above passage that I almost don’t know where to begin. I should perhaps note the careless use of quotation marks around the words “put Ray” since I did not use those words in my review. I actually used the verb “placed,” not “put.” This is a rather trivial point to be sure, but there is nothing trivial about the manner in which the authors attempt to rebut points raised in my review.
On the subject of Ray and the Grapevine Tavern, I noted that Wexler and Hancock had made a “sizeable blunder” in The Awful Grace of God by suggesting that Ray “very likely” heard gossip about a bounty on King’s life in his brother’s St. Louis bar. Why did I say this was a sizeable blunder? For the simple reason that the Grapevine did not open until around six months after Ray left the St. Louis area! To counter this, the authors have apparently chosen to imply that I misrepresented what they wrote. In fact, they flat-out state that they “never say that.” They suggest, instead, that it is their contention that whilst Ray may not have been in the Grapevine himself he “could have maintained some form of contact with the plotters by way of his brothers.” This, however, is nothing like what they said in their first book.
There are two mentions of Ray and the Grapevine Tavern in The Awful Grace of God. The first appears on page 167 in a section titled “Backtracking To Saint Louis” which, as the title would suggest, deals with the time Ray spent in the St. Louis area in June of 1967. “All in all,” the book states, “it seems John Ray’s tavern, patronized by so many local Wallace supporters, would have been an ideal place for James Earl Ray to encounter gossip about a large cash offer for killing Dr. King. Of course, he may well have encountered nothing more than the same gossip he heard in prison and figured that pursuing it wasn’t his best option.” The second instance, appearing on page 249, reads thusly: “Ray heard about the offer in Missouri State Penitentiary after his escape in 1967 [sic], and he very likely heard more gossip about it at his brother’s Grapevine Tavern in Saint Louis.”
What I have presented above represents the sum total of what the authors originally had to say about Ray and the Grapevine. I invite the reader to compare these two quotations to what Wexler and Hancock are now suggesting and I challenge him or her to infer the latter from the former. In The Awful Grace of God it is quite clear from the context (i.e. discussing Ray’s time in St. Louis) and the use of the terms “encounter” and “heard” that the authors did indeed mean to place him in the bar. Additionally, there is not even the merest hint of their new suggestion that Ray was using his brothers to maintain “some form of contact” with actual conspirators. Instead, Wexler and Hancock suggested that Ray may have simply heard gossip in the bar that he chose to ignore.
It is clear that the authors made a mistake and are now altering their own words in order to not only avoid having to own up to it but also to take a needless swipe at my review. And what makes it worse as far as I’m concerned is that Wexler conceded the error to me in an email six years ago. “After reading your entire piece,” Wexler wrote, “I think the only change I’d make in our book is the part where we say a St. Louis bounty could have been reinforced in July of 1967 at the Grapevine. Factually, I think you make fair points ...”2 Apparently Mr. Wexler feels it is one thing to admit an error in private and another thing to do so publicly.
Equally erroneous is the claim by Wexler and Hancock that I dismissed the accounts of prisoners who “directly heard of Ray discussing a plot” by stating that they were all looking for more lenient sentences or rewards. I did indeed raise these considerations in regard to Ray’s fellow inmates, but I did so in sole relation to those inmates Wexler and Hancock presented as evidence that Ray “wanted no part of blacks.” My argument had nothing to do with the question of whether or not Ray was heard discussing a bounty on the life of Dr. King. The authors have conflated two entirely separate issues in an attempt to buttress their false accusation that my review is “riddled with egregious errors” and, presumably, to provide them an excuse to suggest that I did not pay due attention to the likes of Thomas Britton. Yet if I am to be accused of ignoring Britton then the precise same charge must be levelled at Wexler and Hancock because the name Thomas Britton does not appear anywhere in The Awful Grace of God. Which raises an obvious question: Why would I waste time and space in my review evaluating a witness upon whom the authors did not rely or even acknowledge?
In their first book, Wexler and Hancock named one, and only one, inmate whom they said provided “independent corroboration” for Ray’s knowledge of a bounty: David Mitchell. As I pointed out in my review, Mitchell told the FBI that some “friends in St. Louis” had “fixed it with someone in Philadelphia” for Ray to kill King and he had offered to split the $50,000 he was to be paid with Mitchell if he would act as a decoy. If we disregard Ray’s soft-spoken nature and his record as a non-violent offender, the story appears somewhat plausible. That is, up until the point that Mitchell adds the far-fetched claim that after picking up the $50,000 for killing Dr. King they would be picking up another payment for killing “one of those stinking Kennedys.” I believed when I wrote my review, and I still firmly believe today, that Mitchell’s statement is self-discrediting. And it is for that very reason, I suggest, that the HSCA did not even mention his name in their report despite their own attempt to tie Ray to a bounty on the life of Dr. King.
As for Thomas Britton and [James W.] Brown, I first came across their names when reading the factually, morally and intellectually corrupt book Killing The Dream by disgraced journalist, Gerald Posner. Posner’s penchant for misrepresenting documents, interviews and testimonies, and even creating quotations entirely, had already been well established by critics of his Kennedy assassination book, Case Closed. Therefore, I was very careful to check the accuracy of much of his reporting. What I discovered was that Brown had told FBI agents that, whilst in the Missouri State Penitentiary, he heard Ray say that a “Cooley or Cooley’s organization would pay $10,000 to have King dead.”3 When Britton was interviewed, however, he told a different story, stating that Ray had actually spoken of a $100,000 bounty being offered by an unnamed “businessmen’s association.” When asked if he knew anything about a “Cooley’s organization,” Britton suggested this was a “protector and enforcer organization that operated in the prison.”4
The FBI followed up these claims by attempting to verify the existence of “Cooley’s organization” through interviews with numerous inmates and officials at Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP). They came up completely empty-handed. For example, Warden Harold Swenson, and Assistant Associate Warden of Custody, B.J. Poiry, advised the Bureau that they “have no knowledge of ‘Cooley’s Organization’ and have been unable to identify it with any segment of the population at the MSP or to verify its existence, past or present.”5 One particular inmate, John Kenneth Hurtt, stated that “he never heard of ‘Cooley’s Organization’, and he has been in the MSP for fifteen years.”6 Another, James Duane Wray, who claimed to have “lived in practically every hall in the MSP since he arrived in April of 1963”, told agents that he had “never heard of anyone by the name of Cooley or Cooley’s Organization or similar.”7
It is possible that officials at the prison were trying to save themselves from any embarrassment and that every one of the inmates interviewed kept quiet because they feared reprisals. Yet it is equally if not more likely that the FBI was unable to verify the existence of “Cooley’s Organization” because it did not exist. This fact, coupled with the fact that their stories are mutually exclusive, clearly raises doubts about the credibility of both Brown and Britton. Perhaps more importantly, when Brown was located and reinterviewed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, he “denied any knowledge of a ‘Cooley’ organization, or of an offer of $10,000 from any group to kill Dr. King.”8 All of which leaves me wondering how Wexler and Hancock can state so confidently that Britton “heard Ray discuss a $100,000 offer” as if there were no ifs, and or buts about it, and why they fail to mention Brown’s latter day repudiation of his FBI interview.
It should also be noted that when the authors say that Britton “expressly said he did not want a reward” they are not telling the whole story. It is true that the report of his FBI interview relays the fact that Britton did not want to take a “posted reward” because he supposedly “feared Cooley Organization if it were claimed.” However, the same report also notes that he appeared “somewhat interested” in a “payment for services rendered.”9 In other words, he liked the idea of being paid for his story, he just didn’t want anyone to know about it.10
Another misrepresentation of my review―and the facts of the case―appears in note 13, page 269, of Killing King:
Martin Hay, a critic of our work, implies that Stein and his sister both lied about the nature of the Wallace visit. Hay places his stock in James Earl Ray, who refused to acknowledge the visit and had it stricken from a fifty-six-page stipulation of facts during his trial. The problem here is that unlike Ray, who had a motive to lie―to hide his associations with racists from investigators―neither Charles Stein nor his sister had an obvious motive to make the story up. What’s more, Ray made documented and repeated calls to the Wallace campaign while in Los Angeles.
The above is so divorced from what really happened that, once again, I almost don’t know how to respond. For those unfamiliar with the details, it is often claimed by state apologists that Ray was a fanatical supporter of segregationist politician, George Wallace. This notion is generally propped up by the statements of Charles Stein and his sisters who said that before he would agree to drive Charles to New Orleans, Ray insisted they stop by Wallace’s California campaign headquarters so that the Steins could register to vote. Here is everything I had to say about this trip in my review:
In their attempt to establish Ray’s racist tendencies and associations, Wexler and Hancock try to create the impression that he was politically active on behalf of Alabama governor George Wallace, a staunch segregationist. Writing that he “recruited associates to register to vote and support the Wallace campaign” in California. (Wexler and Hancock, p. 160) In truth, Ray made only a single known trip to Wallace’s campaign office, so that three associates could register. But Ray himself never did under any of his aliases.
As I’m sure the reader can easily see for themselves, I made no implication whatsoever in the above passage that the Steins were lying about anything at all. I stated matter-of-factly and without argument or qualification that Ray paid a visit to the Wallace campaign office so that his associates could register to vote. I did not imply, nor have I ever suggested, that the Steins lied about anything because I do not believe they did. There is no reasonable way in which Wexler and Hancock can credibly claim to have inferred such a thing from what I wrote.
Furthermore, their unsourced assertion that Ray “made documented and repeated calls to the Wallace campaign while in Los Angeles” is false. As the FBI discovered after the assassination when it acquired the relevant records from Pacific Telephone Company, Ray had used a phone he had had installed in his Los Angeles hotel room to make precisely 21 calls. One, and only one, of these calls was to Wallace’s office.11 Ray told the HSCA that he made this call because he, as an escaped convict, was looking to establish “some type of cover―some type of front for me to stay in Los Angeles ... I had all Alabama identification. If I was stopped by the police, well, I would just say I was associated with this Wallace group out here in some manner ...”12 It may be said that this explanation doesn’t entirely ring true when considered alongside Ray’s insistence on taking the Steins to Wallace’s office. I would suggest that the likelihood is that Ray, a lifetime crook, had some sort of criminal contact who worked at or around the office whose identity he wished to protect. I must stress, however, that this is nothing more than speculation and I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this was in any way connected with the assassination of Dr. King.
This brings me to the manner in which Wexler and Hancock characterize me in the main text of their book as a “pro-Ray researcher.”13 Given that the authors maintain that Ray was directly, knowingly and willingly involved in the assassination―“probably” the actual gunman in Wexler’s insupportable opinion―this label is clearly intended to suggest that my work is biased and unreliable. However, regardless of how they wish to view or portray matters, my starting point for understanding the case is not Ray’s own account. It is and always has been the crime scene evidence. And as I pointed out in my review of The Awful Grace of God, for Ray, the crime scene evidence is largely exculpatory.
Despite the state’s claims to the contrary, there is no ballistics or eyewitness evidence inculpating Ray. There is no fingerprint, hair, fiber or forensic evidence of any kind that Ray was ever in the rooming house bathroom from which the state alleged the shot was fired. And furthermore, there is not one solitary scrap of proof that the shot was even fired from the bathroom. There was, however, reason to suspect that the shot was fired from the shrubbery below the bathroom window. But, in a highly questionable move, Memphis authorities had the entire area cut down and cleaned up the following morning, thus compromising the scene. It must also be said it is beyond suspicious that, as little as two minutes after the shot was fired, police discovered a rifle Ray had purchased amongst a bundle of his possessions that had been dumped conveniently on the street outside the rooming house. No credible reason why Ray would have left all of this evidence behind to incriminate himself has ever been advanced or is ever likely to be. Additionally, Ray insisted for thirty years that he left the scene very shortly before the assassination and the statements of two witnesses corroborate this.
It is for these reasons, and many more, that Ray’s status as the designated fall guy is, and always has been, obvious. And what this means for me is that Ray is entitled to have his say; that his version of events, his story of how he ended up holding the bag over Dr. King’s death, has at least as much validity, if not more, than the narrative offered by the state. Does this mean that I unquestioningly accept everything he said? Of course not. Ray’s own account is clearly self-serving and he always made it clear that he had little desire to help investigators solve the crime and find the real killers. Which is understandable given that, had Ray ever managed to have his conviction for murdering Dr. King overturned, he would still have had 13 years to serve on his previous sentence for robbery and he had no intention of doing so as the world’s most famous snitch.
If the reader can believe it, despite the promise by Wexler and Hancock to discuss in “various endnotes and in the epilogue” the “egregious errors” with which my review is “riddled,” what I have provided above represents every reference to myself and my review in Killing King. It is tempting to suggest that the reason for this is that the authors simply could not find further errors in my review. But, in fact, as I have shown, that the two endnotes already discussed do not contain actual errors on my part. They are presented as such, but once examined and placed in context, they are not.
I had originally intended to write an in-depth review of Killing King but after having had to respond to the above, it seemed obvious that I would not be able to do so with any real degree of objectivity. Consequently, I have elected not to write one. That being said, there are a couple of points made in the book that I simply cannot let pass by without comment.
The first has to do with the reason why Ray pleaded guilty and accepted a 99-year sentence for the murder of Dr. King. Repeatedly, and until the day he died, Ray protested that the only reason he did so was because his lawyer, Percy Foreman, pressured him into it. Foreman himself denied it, of course, but any objective review of the surrounding facts and circumstances confirms the validity of Ray’s charge. Unsurprisingly, no such review appears anywhere in Killing King. Instead, the authors imply that the real reason Ray pleaded guilty is that he and Foreman both understood that “the evidence against him was damning, and a death penalty verdict was a distinct possibility.”14 Which, quite frankly, is baloney.
Wexler and Hancock make no attempt to explain precisely how Foreman was supposed to know how “damning” the evidence was against Ray when he had conducted no investigation; when he did not even ask to see the state’s ballistics evidence or the affidavits of their one and only alleged eyewitness; when he refused the investigative files of Ray’s previous lawyers despite their being made freely available to him; and when he spent only 12 hours with Ray during what should have been the investigative phase of the case. It is crystal clear that Foreman had not even the slightest interest in the state’s case against his client because he always intended to have him plead guilty.
Foreman first entered the case when he turned up at Ray’s Memphis jail cell on November 9, 1968, at the urging of Ray’s brother, Jerry. At that time, he exploited a source of friction between Ray and his then lawyer, Arthur Hanes, suggesting that the book contracts he had signed with author William Bradford Huie showed that Hanes was only interested in money. Foreman then boasted of his own accomplishments, stating that he had lost only one client in 1,500 capital cases to the electric chair, and told Ray that his was the easiest case he would ever have had to defend. Suitably impressed, Ray fired the Hanes team―who were ready and prepared to go to trial and confident in their chances of gaining an acquittal―hiring Foreman instead. This turned out to be the biggest mistake of Ray’s life.
There is no doubt Foreman was a lawyer of extraordinary ability. He once defended a woman who had shot her husband five times and left him for dead on the front lawn. After fleeing the scene she returned moments later to fire a sixth shot right in front of witnesses who had gathered around the body. Unbelievably, Foreman won her an acquittal.15 Given Foreman’s track record, and the fact that the crime scene evidence was largely exculpatory, Ray’s case should have been an easy win for the Texan attorney. Unfortunately, according to legendary author and investigator Harold Weisberg, Foreman “had a history of doing the government favors and it repaid him by not having him spend his life in jail when he was caught in one of his crooked deals in which he had arranged to put that client away. Foreman did that for the government and for individuals and both rewarded him in return.”16
As previously stated, and for obvious reasons, Foreman denied pressuring Ray to plead guilty. Yet Foreman told so many blatant lies about Ray’s case that taking his word for almost anything is completely unthinkable. For example, Foreman claimed in numerous interviews, and even in his HSCA testimony, that he had entered the case after Ray had personally sent a letter to his Houston office requesting that he do so. Of course he could never produce the letter when asked to because no such letter ever existed. As noted previously, it was actually Ray’s brother Jerry who asked Foreman to get involved and Foreman himself said so to a reporter for the Memphis Press Scimitar in November 1968. He said the same thing again the following year in a legal deposition.17
Foreman claimed to have spent up to 75 hours discussing the case with Ray during the four months he represented him. But when the committee reviewed Ray’s prison logs it discovered that Foreman had actually spent only 20 hours with him; two of those were during their first meeting when he was convincing Ray to drop Hanes and hire him instead; and six came after he convinced Ray to plead guilty. Which, as previously noted, means that Foreman spent only 12 hours with Ray during the four months he was supposed to be investigating the case.18 Foreman told the HSCA that he had personally interviewed numerous witnesses yet could not name a single one of them or provide even one written or recorded statement when asked. He even had the gall to claim that he had never recommended Ray should plead guilty despite having written a letter to Ray that did just that.19 Foreman told lie after lie in an effort to cover up his own misconduct.
As Ray explained, he had hired Foreman because he promised an acquittal. But once Foreman had pushed the Hanes team out of the way and secured his $165,000 fee through a new set of book contracts and ownership of Ray’s Ford Mustang, he abruptly changed his tune. Without having conducted any meaningful investigation whatsoever, he turned up at Ray’s cell on February 13, 1969, with a letter for him to sign, advising him to plead guilty, and stating that he now saw “a ninety-nine percent chance of your receiving a death penalty verdict if your case goes to trial. Furthermore, there is a hundred percent chance of a guilty verdict.” He told Ray that the media had already convicted him, pointing to specific articles in Life, Reader’s Digest, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and suggested that the court clerk would manipulate the juror pool so Ray would be up against a panel of angry blacks intent on revenge.
When Ray still insisted on going to trial, Foreman travelled to St. Louis and attempted to recruit members of Ray’s family in his effort to persuade him otherwise. Jerry recalled that Foreman was “crying and putting on a show ... He told us that if Jimmy demanded a trial and took the witness stand, he would surely fry in the hot seat.”20 The family wasn’t moved by Foreman’s performance so he went back to working directly on Ray. “Let me tell you, Jim, you go to trial and they’ll burn your ass! They’ll barbecue you!”21 Still Ray would not agree to plead. It was then that Foreman resorted to what Ray called “terror tactics.” The FBI, he said, had been looking into the criminal history of the family and were going to send Ray’s father back to Iowa prison for a 40-year-old parole violation. They were also going to arrest his brother Jerry as a co-conspirator in the King slaying. Finally, according to Ray, Foreman “got the message over to me that if I forced him to go to trial he would destroy―deliberately―the case in the courtroom.”22
Ray came to believe that, rather than allowing Foreman to throw the case in front of a jury, he would be better off entering a guilty plea and then filing a “new trial” petition. Foreman encouraged this belief, offering to give Jerry Ray $500 to hire a new attorney after the plea went through. He even put this in writing in a March 9, 1969, letter that stipulated the $500 was “contingent upon the plea of guilty and sentence going through on March 10, 1969, without any unseemly conduct on your part in court.” Finally, feeling he had little choice, Ray relented, agreed to plead guilty, and accepted a 99-year sentence.
It needs to be noted at this point that, by the time Ray agreed to plead guilty in March, 1969, he had spent approximately eight months in a specially constructed cell that appears to have been designed to break him down, emotionally, physically and mentally. This maximum-security cell had steel plates over the windows and Ray was never allowed outside for a breath of fresh air. Two guards were present with him at all times, even when he used the toilet, and blinding lights were on him 24-hours-a-day, making it extremely difficult to sleep. Ray also had cameras and microphones picking up his every move so that, in order to speak privately with his lawyers, they all had to lie on the floor of the cell with the shower running. The result of these conditions, according to Jerry Ray, was that “James was sort of out of his mind at the time.”23 When Michael Eugene―the British barrister who had represented Ray in London during his June, 1968, extradition hearing―visited Ray in early 1969, he was taken aback by the deterioration in Ray’s condition, saying that he looked sick, weak, and nervous.24
Should the reader doubt that the relentless pressure from Foreman and the unsettling conditions of his incarceration are the factors which led Ray to plead guilty, they need understand only one thing: Shortly after his extradition, the state offered Ray, through the Haneses, a life-sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. A life sentence in Tennessee in 1968 was only 13 years. And, as Hanes Jr. testified in a 1999 civil case, the plea bargain they were offered at that point “allowed for parole in ten years.”25 Ray, who at that point in time was not yet feeling the full effects of his jail conditions or being subjected to “terror tactics” and threats of frying in the electric chair, turned the offer down.
This brings us to Foreman’s claim that Ray faced a 99% chance of receiving the death penalty and the suggestion by Wexler and Hancock that this was “a distinct possibility.” In truth, this notion is more than questionable. At the time of Ray’s plea in March, 1969, there had not been an electrocution in Tennessee for more than eight years and no one in Shelby County―of which Memphis is the county seat―had been electrocuted since 1948. As Judge Preston Battle noted at Ray’s plea hearing, he had personally sentenced “at least seven men to the electric chair, maybe a few more” since taking the bench in 1959, yet none of them had been executed. He noted, “All of the trends in this country are in the direction of doing away with capital punishment altogether.” Further, there is, as far as I’m aware, no evidence that the State intended to seek the death penalty for Ray. In fact, Shelby County District Attorney General Phil Canale told reporters after Ray’s hearing that “he did not see how the state could have fared better than the guilty plea and sentence ...”26 So it certainly appears as if a death sentence for Ray was, in reality and contrary to the claims of Wexler and Hancock, distinctly unlikely. (For a complete expose of Foreman’s lies about his entry into the case and his lack of any trial preparation, see John Avery Emison’s, The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover Up, pp. 131-64)
But the idea that somehow Foreman was intimidated by the evidence in the case is also belied by two other sets of facts presented by John Emison. Number one, the first lawyers who were going to represent Ray, the father/son team of Arthur Hanes and Arthur Jr., were so confident in their defense, they refused a plea bargain and insisted on pleading Ray innocent and going to trial. Furthering this point, William Pepper later won a civil case in Memphis brought by the King family. There the jury agreed with his outline of a broad conspiracy, including governmental agencies. (Pepper also won an elaborate and expensive HBO-produced mock trial in which the rules of evidence did not strictly apply.) The second set of facts presented by Emison concerns Foreman’s talks with reporter Sidney Zion. Prior to the court proceedings in Memphis, Foreman told Zion that the King case was “the biggest story of our lives.” He then added that if Zion was patient he could give him a scoop that “would take the top off the country.” He then said that Ray was innocent and indeed there was a conspiracy to kill King. A few months later, while seeing Foreman in a bar in New York, Zion tried to talk to him to understand what had happened: Why did he plead his client guilty if he knew he was innocent? Foreman denied any such previous conversation. He then quickly laid down a twenty-dollar bill to pay for his drinks and left.
The final issue with Killing King that I wish to address has to do with the authors’ feeble attempt to bolster their claim that the evidence against Ray was “damning” enough to warrant a guilty plea. They write:
Ray’s movements closely track King’s from Los Angeles to Selma, to Atlanta to Memphis; he purchased a rifle in Birmingham found near the scene of the crime; only his fingerprints were found on that rifle; he purchased binoculars on the day of the crime; he registered at Bessie Brewer’s rooming house across from the Lorraine from whence witnesses heard the shot; he fled Memphis immediately after the shooting and eventually escaped in search of a country with no extradition orders.”27
In all honesty, most of this is barely worth taking the time to respond to. The suggestion that Ray’s movements show he was stalking Dr. King was dealt with in my review of The Awful Grace of God and it is not worth doing again here; the fact that the rifle and binoculars Ray purchased were found conveniently dumped at the scene was, as previously stated, clearly consistent with his being set up; the claim that witnesses “heard the shot” come from the rooming house is made without reference to any such witnesses and ignores the simple truth that there is precisely zero evidence that the shot was fired from anywhere in that building; and the fact that Ray fled the city after the police began to gather near the rooming house is hardly a surprise given his status as an escaped convict.
Finally we come to the matter of Ray’s fingerprints and their being the “only” ones on the rifle. This is not the cut-and-dried issue Wexler and Hancock make it out to be. The FBI laboratory reported finding two latent prints “of value” on the rifle that were said to match the prints of James Earl Ray. These consisted of one fingerprint “on side of rifle” and one fingerprint on the telescopic sight.28 The phrase “of value” means that these were the only prints on the rifle that were judged as complete enough for identification purposes. It does not necessarily mean that there were no other unidentifiable partial or fragmentary prints present on the weapon that may well have been left behind by someone else. Yes, the fingerprint evidence demonstrates that Ray handled the weapon—which is no revelation given that he admitted to doing so—but it does not in any way establish that no one else did. And the fact remains that the two prints in question were not where we might have expected them to be had Ray actually fired the rifle.
But beyond that, the point is this: Did the bullet that killed King come from that rifle? That key issue has never been decided. In fact, when Judge Joe Brown was intent on resolving it during a criminal trial in Memphis in 1997, he was forcibly removed from the case. (Which is why Pepper and the King family had to resort to a civil case.) Afterwards, Jerry Ray, brother of James Earl Ray, tried to get possession of the rifle. As Mike Vinson noted in his article on this site, he was denied this request. Jerry was convinced he was denied because he was determined to do the tests that Brown was not allowed to do.
I have no desire to comment further on Killing King. Having had to address the disingenuous manner in which the authors chose to respond to my review of The Awful Grace of God has left a very bad taste in my mouth. To recap: they claim that I dismissed the comments of prisoners who supposedly heard Ray discussing a bounty with a blanket statement about their motives when, in fact, I had offered that suggestion on an entirely different subject and had specifically addressed the one and only inmate Wexler and Hancock had offered as evidence that Ray had heard of a bounty in prison. They claim that I ignored two witnesses whom the authors themselves did not even refer to in their first book and then failed to note that one of those alleged witnesses, Thomas Britton, was indeed interested in receiving money for his story and that the other, James W. Brown, completely disavowed the story when confronted by the HSCA. They imply that I somehow misrepresented their argument about Ray hearing gossip of a bounty in the Grapevine Tavern when it is actually the authors themselves who failed to accurately represent their own words. And they say that I implied in my review that Charles Stein and his sisters were lying about being taken to the Wallace campaign office to register to vote when no such implication appears anywhere in my review.
Stu Wexler was in part responsible for getting the FBI’s comparative bullet lead analysis testing thrown out of the court system. Today it is discredited enough that Robert Blakey, the Chief Counsel of the HSCA—who used it to convict Oswald—now calls it “junk science”. Hancock has written two respectable books on the JFK case, Someone Would Have Talked and Nexus. But something seems to have happened to them with their entry into the King case. Since their performance in this particular instance is so different from what they did previously. What can one say about taking a simple description of three people being driven to register to vote and somehow infer from that those three people are being accused of lying?
If the reader still plans on checking out their new book then I would advise doing so with extreme caution. Double check everything.
1 Private email from Stuart Wexler, 3/10/2012.
2 Private email from Stuart Wexler, 3/10/2012.
3 See FBI Interview of James W. Brown, 5/8/68 and FBI MURK/Users/arossi/Desktop/hay-killing-king.pngIN Central Headquarters File, Section 28, p. 190.
4 FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 33, pp. 16-21.
5 FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 39, p. 56.
6 FBI MURKIN, Section 39, p. 56.
7 FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 56, p. 6.
8 House Select Committee on Assassinations MLK appendix volume 13, p. 247. Wexler and Hancock write that “an FBI investigation not only confirmed the existence of the group in MSP, but raised the possibility that the group existed across the federal prison system.” (p. 68) Their source note for this claim reads, “Memo from Rosen to Deloach (8/23/68) King Assassination FBI Central Headquarters File, section 69, 58.” But a quick check reveals that the cited memo makes absolutely no mention of “Cooley’s organization” whatsoever. There is a June 14, 1968 memo from Branigan to Sullivan found in Central Headquarters File 60, p. 47, that states, “We have confirmed the existence of Cooley’s Organization …. There are indications that this organization exists in other prisons.” Yet there is no additional information of any kind offered in support of this declaration and the same memo states, “Although we have conducted extensive interviews, we have been unable to ascertain information as to its principals or membership or the extent of its network.” How it is possible to verify the existence of an organization without identifying a single one of its leaders, members, places of operation, or any other details, is anyone’s guess. However, from the context of the memo, the fact that it begins by stating that “Ray was reported to have said Cooley or Cooley’s organization would pay $10,000 to have King killed”, it seems apparent that what the memo is saying is that James W. Brown’s talk of Cooley’s was “confirmed” by Thomas Britton. Yet, as we have seen, Brown himself repudiated the whole story years later.
9 FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 33, p. 25.
10 Buried amongst all the selective reporting and misrepresentation aimed at discrediting my review, Wexler and Hancock do manage to touch upon one fair point regarding my speculation on the motivations of Ray’s fellow inmates. Whilst I believe the speculation was entirely reasonable, I did not adequately identify it as such and overstated the surety of my argument. Mea culpa. I shall endeavour to be more careful in the future.
11 FBI Report of Special Agent Leroy Sheets; 4/18/68; Los Angeles, pp. 111-113.
12 House Select Committee on Assassinations, MLK appendix volume 3, p. 206.
13 Wexler & Hancock, Killing King, p. 197.
14 Killing King, p. 184.
15 Harold Weisberg, Frame-Up, p. 94.
16 For further details, see Weisberg’s unpublished manuscript, Whoring With History, pp. 145-148, available online at JFK.hood.edu.
17 John Avery Emison, The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up, pp. 133-134.
18 House Select Committee on Assassinations MLK appendix volume 5 p. 301 and HSCA report p. 320.
19 House Select Committee on Assassinations MLK appendix volume 5, pp. 301-302.
20 Jerry Ray & Tamara Carter, A Memoir of Injustice, pp. 78-79.
21 Gerold Frank, An American Death, p. 376.
22 Frank, p. 472.
23 Mark Lane & Dick Gregory, Murder in Memphis, p. 190.
24 Lane & Gregory, p. 190.
25 The 13th Juror: The Official Transcript of the Martin Luther King Conspiracy Trial, p. 208.
26 Weisberg, Frame-Up, p. 119.
27 Wexler & Hancock, Killing King, p. 184.