Guilty or innocent? HBO to stage a trial of James Earl Ray

TELEVISION PREVIEW

April 02, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

James Earl Ray, the confessed killer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., says it's a great TV show.

The question is why was he asked in the first place.

Ray was asked because HBO's "Guilt or Innocence: The Trial of James Earl Ray," which airs Sunday night at 8, goes beyond mere blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, reality and entertainment. The mock trial of Ray obliterates the lines. Once you get this far into shaking and baking history into a show-biz cutlet, why not ask Ray himself for a critique of the telecast and see how strange things can get?

The telephone conversation with the 65-year-old Ray was pretty strange by itself. Here's a guy serving 99 years in a Nashville prison for the assassination of Dr. King doing phone interviews arranged by HBO to promote a make-believe TV trial that will determine his guilt or innocence.

Last month, HBO was arranging such phone interviews for James Garner to promote "Barbarians at the Gate." This month, it's the man who confessed to killing one of the leading moral lights of this century promoting a TV event that will air on the 25th anniversary of the assassination.

For those unfamiliar with the tumultuous days of 1968, Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4 of that year as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. In June 1968, Ray -- then a fugitive from a Missouri penitentiary -- was charged with Dr. King's murder and faced the possibility of death in the electric chair.

At a pre-trial hearing, Ray pleaded guilty to killing Dr. King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Three days after the hearing,though, Ray reversed himself, fired his attorney and asked for a trial.

The request for a trial has been denied by the courts. But, now, thanks to HBO and Britain's Thames TV, Ray will get his trial.

The made-for-TV trial, which was made available for preview minus the verdict, is strange, too.

It was taped at Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis for 10 days in January and February. Melvin E. Frankel, a former U.S. District Court judge from New York and professor at Columbia University, presides. W. Hickman Ewing, a former U.S. attorney from Tennessee, prosecutes. William Pepper, who has been Ray's attorney since 1985, defends Ray. There's a 12-person jury. All of it is given an aura of respectability by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," who hosts the special, providing introductions, background and summaries during the three-hour telecast.

Throughout the trial, Ray is in attendance, too, despite his incarceration. Thanks to the "magic" of TV and satellite technology, Ray fills video monitors in the courtroom, watching as others testify and, finally, testifying himself. It is, perhaps, that video image of this small man with thick-rimmed glasses looking on that makes the scene seem so strange.

Although Ray said he's receiving no money for his involvement in the TV trial, he felt Thames and HBO were doing him a "favor" with the telecast.

"They're spending $3 million . . . for my trial," he said. That figure includes payments to the judge, attorneys, Hunter-Gault and production costs, according to Ray.

Ray's main message during his TV testimony and the interview is that he did not kill Dr. King. He says he's a patsy who was set up by the FBI. He was, he says, a pawn in a conspiracy to kill Dr. King.

"I was just a decoy . . . I was involved in what I thought was a gun-selling scheme and wound up getting charged with murder," he said. "I was so dumb. I should have got 10 years just for being so dumb. And I have committed other criminal offenses, like smuggling. . . . But I didn't do it [kill King]," he said.

His claims sound reminiscent of those by Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John Kennedy, in Oliver

Stone's movie "JFK." Ray said he's seen about two-thirds of the movie.

"It seemed to be a good movie, but I don't know too much about that particular case," he said, explaining why he tuned out.

For the record, Ray said he won't be able to watch Sunday night when HBO airs the tape, along with the jury's verdict, which it has thus far managed to keep secret. While the TV verdict will not have any immediate impact on his life in jail, Ray is up for parole in 1995. Public perception that Ray was a patsy, which a show like HBO's can create, could influence the parole board.

"No, I won't be able to watch, but my attorney will and he'll come and visit me on Monday and tell me," Ray said. "And, who knows, somebody might just call me on Sunday night and tell me."

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