Guilty of What?

The very beginning of the State of Tennessee versus James Earl Ray was bizarre, and foretold the circus of law, commercial exploitation, greed, fear, and sincere idealism which followed.

James Earl Ray

First on the scene was William Bradford Huie, a popular writer from Alabama. He apparently had an arrangement with Ray's first lawyer, Arthur Hanes, Senior, and his son, lawyers with considerable experience in criminal defense. The Haneses proceeded to prepare a full defense, based on a plea of not guilty. A fee for Hanes and story rights to Huie.

Huie and the forces behind him decided to switch to a plea of guilty, and suddenly brought in Percy Foreman, the "famous lawyer from Houston," as he was billed.

James Earl Ray Arrested

The guilty plea seemed to fit Huie's story line better, and it certainly would ease the social tension. The City of Memphis was on edge. A large, angry black population was rumbling ominously, and the recent burning and destruction in Watts was in the air. A long and acrid trial would simply serve to "stir things up." A guilty plea - neat, quick and final - that's what was needed. The accused did have certain rights, but he was guilty, of course.

The accused had been held in excessive security for nearly nine months - bright lights day and night, constant video and audio surveillance, and two guards in 24-hour attendance. James Earl Ray was in no shape to withstand any kind of trial.

Before the Haneses had been ushered off the scene, Ray had told them both that he did not want to plead guilty. "I did not shoot Martin Luther King," he said.

Foreman was another matter. At six foot four inches and 300 pounds, with a booming voice and an overbearing manner, he told Ray, "You gonna fry, boy, you gonna fry!"

Huie and Foreman improperly conferred with Judge Battle. A guilty plea was entered. Guilty of what? The defendant himself did not know that the plea was for first-degree murder. While he admitted to being "involved," he told me that he "did not shoot King."

When Judge Battle intoned, "You, James Earl Ray, and you alone, shot and killed Martin Luther King," Ray tried to jump to his feet in protest, but Foreman cut him off. He brought to bear his considerable weight and shoved Ray back down in his seat, intoning, "Yes, Your Honor, that is our plea."

Judge Battle asked no questions. He made no comment about "inconclusive" ballistics tests conducted by Memphis Police. No witnesses were questioned. Ray was summarily whisked off to the penitentiary in Nashville that very day.

The next day, Ray wrote a letter to the judge. By great coincidence, Judge Battle showed the letter to a Memphis lawyer who was a close friend of both the judge and myself. "It appears to be a motion for a new trial," Judge Battle said, "and I'm going to grant it, as soon as I get back from my vacation."

James Earl Ray & Jack Kershaw

My friend made it a point to call on the judge the day he was due back from his vacation, and was told by the judge's secretary that he had requested "no visitors" for awhile. My friend decided to wait. After waiting a long while, he suggested to the secretary that perhaps they should investigate.

They knocked on the judge's door, and when there was no response, they opened it, only to find the judge at his desk, sprawled forward with his arms stretched out, with Ray's letter under one outstretched hand. He was dead of a massive heart attack.

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