A Look Back at Steve Scott’s Interviews With James Earl Ray, The Man Who Pleaded Guilty To Killing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — James Earl Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which happened 50 years ago Wednesday.
But until his death at the age of 70 in 1998, Ray maintained that the guilty plea notwithstanding, he was not the one who killed Dr. King.
WCBS 880’s Steve Scott interviewed Ray several times – including two radio interviews in the prison where Ray was serving his sentence, first in 1992 and again shortly before Ray died in 1998.
Ray was a footnote in the grand scheme of history, Scott noted. But in 1992, Ray published a book, “Who Killed Martin Luther King? The True Story by the Alleged Assassin.” Upon seeing the book, Scott thought Ray might be an interesting person to talk to.
Scott went through Ray’s publisher to get in contact with him, and not long afterward, Ray called him at home.
“I was taking a nap one day, and got a collect call from a maximum security prison in Nashville, Tennessee, and there was James Earl Ray on the other end of the phone,” Scott said. “And I interviewed him, and then I asked him, I said, ‘Hey listen, if I can get myself down to Nashville, would you be willing to sit down in a room with me and record a radio interview face-to-face talking about the King assassination?’”
Scott said Ray responded, “Well, you know, they don’t like me a whole lot,” but said Scott could ask prison authorities. The prison authorities in turn said there were no rules against an interview, so Scott could come down to talk to Ray if he so desired.
So Scott, who was working in Chicago at the time, headed to Nashville and met with Ray at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville in 1992. Ray laughed as Scott played him a clip of CBS News’ Walter Cronkite from the night Dr. King was assassinated.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Police have issued an all-points bulletin for a well-dressed young white man seen running from the scene,” Cronkite said in the clip.
Ray said: “Well-dressed? That couldn’t have been me.”
Ray had been a fugitive from a Missouri prison at the time of the King assassination. He had a long criminal record that included armed robbery, burglary, forgery and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, CBS News reported.
Speaking to Scott, Ray said he was a low-level crook who ran guns over the Canadian and Mexican borders. He said he was duped into being in Memphis when Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968.
Ray fled the city shortly after the shooting and was captured in London two months afterward, CBS News recalled. He signed a confession with a detailed description of how investigators claimed the crime happened, and went on to plead guilty, CBS News recalled.
CBS News reported the prosecutor in the case, Phil M. Canale Jr., maintained there was no evidence of a conspiracy in the King assassination. Canale did not outline a motive for the killing, nor did he accuse Ray, who was white, of being racist, CBS News reported.
Ray tried to withdraw the guilty plea three days after issuing it even though he had told the judge he understood the plea could not be appealed, CBS News reported. He claimed at the time that he was set up by a shadowy gun dealer he had met in Montreal and whom he knew only as Raoul, and said he himself was changing a tire at the time King was killed, CBS News reported.
Authorities never found a connection between the man identified as Raoul and the slaying, and several courts said there was never evidence of anyone else’s involvement, CBS News reported.
Ray told Scott in the 1992 interview that he was not involved in any way with the King assassination, and he said he pleaded guilty out of concern that his brother and father – the latter also a prison escapee who had been on the lam for more than four decades – might also face charges otherwise.
Scott: “James, I’ll ask you again, did you kill Martin Luther King?”
Ray: “No, I had nothing to do with the shooting of Martin Luther King, and I had no advance knowledge of it. But having said that, I had been, you know, committing criminal offenses. But I wouldn’t have got no 99 years for what I was doing.”
Scott: “You confessed to the King murder.”
Ray: “Yes… I didn’t really confess to it. I entered a guilty plea. There’s a difference between, you know, a confession and a guilty plea.”
Scott: “But why plead guilty to one of the most notorious murders of the 20th century if you didn’t do it?
Ray: “If I didn’t enter a guilty plea, they might charge my brother Jerry Ray for as a conspirator in the Martin Luther King murder.”
Scott: “Who had nothing to do with it?”
Ray: “He was working. They knew he was working at the time. He was working in Chicago at the time, six days a week. They also said they might arrest my father, and my father, he’d escaped from prison in 1925, and he’d been a fugitive ever since. So apparently, the Justice Department found out about it, and they told my attorney, Percy Foreman, and he came and told me that if I didn’t enter a guilty plea, that you know, they might put him back in jail. And so I agreed to enter a guilty plea on those conditions.”
In the interview, Ray suggested that the FBI was behind the King assassination, because then-Director J. Edgar Hoover was terrified of King’s influence over black America.
Ray also reminded Scott that he was a prison escapee himself in 1968, and said, “What better way to stay under the radar than to kill Martin Luther King?”
The U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in 1978 that Ray was the man who killed Dr. King. But the committee concluded that a group of racial bigots in St. Louis – with a reported $50,000 bounty on King’s head, might have been involved too, CBS News reported in 1998.
As to whether he believes Ray was King’s assassination, Scott said: “He maintained until the day he died that he didn’t do it. Do I believe him? I’m not a big conspiracy guy. I’m really not. But there is a lot of compelling evidence – and the King family buys into this as well – that points, perhaps, to the fact that James Earl Ray at least did not act alone or didn’t do it at all. But you know what? If you give me 99 years in prison, I’m going to come up with some pretty good stories too. So the bottom line – I just don’t know.”
Neil A. Carousso produced and edited the backstory video with WCBS Newsradio 880 afternoon anchor Steve Scott.