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From small-time criminal to notorious assassin


Will James Earl Ray's story ever be fully told?

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- James Earl Ray may be the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s convicted assassin, but questions of a possible conspiracy still linger.

Despite repeated claims of innocence, Ray has never been able to provide hard evidence that he was used as a pawn in a conspiracy plot to kill the civil rights leader.

Now 70 years old and seriously ill with cirrhosis of the liver, Ray has spent the past 29 years trying to clear his name. Not even members of King's family have been able to persuade a judge to allow a trial. As Ray's health worsens, many believe the truth will never be found.

Last month, Ray's lawyer, William Pepper, said he would not appeal a Tennessee court order disqualifying a judge who had made rulings favorable to Ray. He said an appeal would tax Ray's poor health, with little chance of success.

King's widow called for a national commission to investigate her husband's assassination Thursday, two days before the 30th anniversary of his slaying.

Coretta Scott King wants to meet with President Clinton to discuss possible new evidence and recent developments in the case and to ask him to initiate a new probe.

The fateful evening in Memphis

A small-time criminal, Ray broke out of a Missouri prison in 1967 and onto the international stage on April 4, 1968.

On that spring evening, King was gunned down as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was trying to mediate a garbage workers' strike. He was struck by one bullet and died later at a hospital.

King's death, at age 39, caused race riots in dozens of cities and worldwide mourning.

Prosecutors said Ray fired the fatal shot from the bathroom of a rooming house. Witnesses said that moments after the shooting, they saw Ray running from the building, carrying a bundle.

Ray fled abroad and hopped from city to city. He finally was apprehended at London's Heathrow Airport on June 8. He reportedly put his head in his hands and wept when authorities confronted him.

The FBI quickly identified Ray as the primary suspect. Authorities found Ray's fingerprints on the rifle, a scope and a pair of binoculars. He pleaded guilty in March 1969 and was given a 99-year prison sentence.

Ray admitted buying a rifle similar to the murder weapon and renting the room at the Memphis flophouse where the shot was fired. But soon after being sentenced, Ray recanted his confession, saying he had handed over the gun to a man he identified only as "Raoul."

Ray then began seeking the trial he never had because of his guilty plea.

Ray relates his story in a book

Over the years, Ray suggested a conspiracy and government cover-up. His 1992 book, "Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin," offered his version of events, but investigators did not reopen the case.

Ray's father was quoted as saying his son, who was a high school dropout, was not smart enough to have pulled off the crime by himself. In 1978, a special congressional committee concluded a "likelihood" existed that Ray did not act alone.

Meantime, in 1977, Ray escaped from a Tennessee prison and led authorities on a massive manhunt over three days before being recaptured.

King's family believes Ray

Ray came as close as he ever would to being absolved in King's assassination in a March 1997 meeting with one of the civil rights leader's sons, Dexter King.

"I had nothing to do with shooting your father," Ray told King.

Later, King asked Ray directly, "I want to ask for the record: Did you kill my father?"

"No, I didn't, no, no," Ray replied.

"I believe you, and my family believes you, and we will do everything in our power to see you prevail," King promised.

The King family joined Ray's relatives and others in the call for a trial, saying it would be the only way to discover the full truth about what happened in Memphis.

Rifle tests inconclusive

Civil rights leaders urged Ray to declare all he knew.

"If James Earl Ray confesses to the public that he has more information and more people, there will be a trial," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in July 1997. Jackson was on the motel balcony with King and witnessed the assassination.

"If he cannot get beyond the mysterious figure called 'Raoul,' he does not warrant another trial," Jackson added.

At the urging of Ray's attorneys, new forensic tests were conducted in 1997 on the rifle believed to have been used to kill King.

But as with earlier rounds of tests, they were found to be inconclusive -- not unlike Ray's own account of the events that placed him at the center of a controversial chapter of U.S. history.

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