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The Alleged Murder Weapon in the
Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 4, 1968, within minutes after the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a local police officer discovered a Remington 30-06 rifle, several unused bullets, and other effects that belonged to James Earl Ray, wrapped inside a blanket, outside Canipe's Amusement store. The owner of the store recalled someone dropping the package at his door before the time of the assassination. Despite this evidence, it would be months before the FBI and police agencies began looking for escaped convict James Earl Ray as the alleged assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was shot, standing outside his room on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. There was much eyewitness evidence, at the time of the shooting, to suggest that the fatal shot that struck him did not come from the direction of a nearby rooming house bathroom window, near a room allegedly rented by Ray. But perhaps the most telling evidence was the bullet fragment removed from the spine of Dr. King during a very incomplete autopsy proceeding done by Fr. Francesca. The FBI tested this bullet fragment, along with the alleged murder weapon, in 1968, as did the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976, with the same result. The fatal bullet could not be conclusively linked to the Remington 30-06 rifle purchased by James Earl Ray.

The FBI told many incredulous and conflicting stories about their ballistics work in this case. They claimed that the rifle was not tested on retrieval to see if it had been fired that day, a simple and standard procedure, the omission of which strains credulity. More likely, just such a test was done; and the rifle was found not to have been fired. In addition, the bullet fragment was claimed to be so damaged that caliber, markings and grooves needed for comparison were unable to be seen clearly. Dr. Francesca later contested this description. The FBI finding, that the bullet was "consistent" with having been fired from the gun, means only that the caliber of the bullet was not too large to fit in the barrel of the rifle.

The House Select Committee Report was even less equivocal on the matter, claiming that it was impossible to conclusively link the bullet to the murder weapon, or to rule it out. Similarly, they reported that the direction and angle of the shot and wounds could not be stated conclusively. Their only firm conclusion was that Ray had been the assassin of Dr. King. Their tests were similarly inconclusive, and had Ray had an actual trial with ballistics evidence presented, the jury should have been instructed that the rifle could not be linked to the fatal bullet, and that this was not sufficient evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ray was pressured into a plea bargain, including a guilty plea. Following conviction, he immediately began a series of legal appeals that lasted until the time of his death in prison, from untreated health problems, in 1999. In his final legal review, allowed by new state laws in Tennessee, Ray was represented by Dr. William Pepper, Esq., before elected Memphis Judge Joe Brown. Brown was himself an expert on weapons and ballistics, and after reviewing the evidence, he ordered new tests on the alleged murder rifle.

The tests showed a peculiar heat mark on the bullets fired, which did not match markings on the bullet fragment, but which could have been due to deposits in the barrel over time. In order to complete the tests, Judge Brown requested copies of the earlier FBI and HSCA testing results, and the State Supreme Court in Tennessee stepped in and denied him access on the grounds that it went beyond the parameters of the case on appeal. Judge Brown continued to press for further testing, since it was incomplete. At one point, the rifle was nearly removed physically from the courthouse, and only preserved by intervention of the bailiff. And then, Judge Brown was removed from the case by order of the State Supreme Court. James Earl Ray died before a new judge was assigned, and the case became moot.

The rifle remained in custody of the Shelby County Courts in Memphis. James Earl Ray's brother, Jerry Ray, brought suit for repossession of the rifle at that point, and has been repeatedly denied on the grounds that it was "abandoned". In Tennessee, abandonment of property is defined as "the voluntary relinquishment thereof by its owner with the intention of terminating his ownership, possession and control. [W.R. Grace & Co. v. Taylor, 55 Tenn.App. 2227, 398 S.W.2d 81 (1965)]. It might be instructive to recall that the alleged murder rifle in the assassination of President Kennedy, a Mannlicher-Carcano that supposedly belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald, was no less "abandoned" (or no less placed?) than Ray's rifle, and was returned to his widow, Marina, and then donated to the National Archives.

Judge Brown continued in his efforts to have the rifle secured and tested, to no avail. At some point, the National Civil Rights Museum, which now occupies the old Lorraine Motel building, petitioned the Shelby County Courts for the rifle to be donated for historical exhibit at the Museum. The Courts agreed to transfer it to their control some time in 2001. Judge Brown increased his efforts to test the rifle before the chain of custody was broken, negotiating with both the Museum and the County Courts. Without notice, the rifle was recently transferred, along with many other pieces of physical evidence in the case, to the Civil Rights Museum.

It is critical to get the rifle tested before further handling changes its evidentiary value, and to determine, once and for all, whether or not this rifle was in fact used to kill Dr. King. If not, which Judge Brown and many others suspect is the case, then it will reopen the unresolved question of who in fact did kill Dr. King. A recent civil suit brought by the King family led to a jury verdict that Ray did not shoot Dr. King, and that a conspiracy that went to the top levels of U.S. intelligence and military agencies was ultimately responsible for his death.

Judge Brown can provide the necessary bonding and funding to complete these critical tests if the Civil Rights Museum will release the rifle to him for such purpose. Beverly Robertson, the Museum Director has been reluctant to do so, stating that she does not see a need for such tests. "Let people decide for themselves," she told one researcher who called to convince her.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Judge Joe Brown, researcher and author Philip Melanson, Ph.D., and Dr. William Pepper are all agreed on the importance of testing the rifle at this critical juncture, and have contacted the Museum to encourage their cooperation. Judge Brown is asking other concerned researchers and citizens to do the same.

Please call or fax the Civil Rights Museum at the numbers listed below to demand that they:

  1. Preserve the rifle in its current condition with a minimum of handling or exposure.

  2. Allow appropriately designated individuals to retrieve the rifle on behalf of Judge Joe Brown.

  3. Agree to allow all necessary further testing of the rifle suggested by Judge Brown.

  4. Properly reflect the alleged status of the rifle and the gunman in their exhibits on the case, and the outcome of the testing done by Judge Brown, and the recent civil suit before Judge Swearington.

  5. Consider an exhibit done in consultation with long time researchers and writers who have worked to expose the real assassins of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  6. Join those seeking the historical truth about this murder in calling for a full release of all government documents from the files of the HSCA and all other government agencies and repositories in Tennessee and at the federal level, that related to the surveillance, obstruction, and murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movements he was part of.

National Civil Rights Museum
Beverly Robertson, Director -- (901) 521-9699, ext. 28
Barbara Andrews, Curator -- (901) 521-9699, ext. 23
Or Fax -- (901) 521-9740
Or E-mail from "Feedback" at their website: http://216.157.9.6/civilrights/,
or to bandrews@civilrightsmuseum.org

Thanks for your assistance in this crucial matter. I hope you will be able to join members of the Coalition on Political Assassinations for a regional meeting in Dallas from November 20-22, 2000 at the Paramount Hotel. Judge Joe Brown, Dick Gregory, Philip Melanson, John Judge, Bill Kelly, T. Carter and others will be attending and speaking on the assassinations of Dr. King and John F. Kennedy, and a moment of silence will be observed on the Grassy Knoll at Dealey Plaza at 12:30 on November 22. There is no fee for the meeting.

John Judge, for Coalition on Political Assassinations and the truth.

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