King's killer to subpoena witnesses

April 16, 1994|By New York Times News Service

ATLANTA -- A Memphis Criminal Court judge ruled yesterday that James Earl Ray, the confessed assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will be allowed to subpoena witnesses in support of his assertions of innocence and his request for a new trial.

In what one prosecutor termed a "bizarre" situation, Judge Joseph Brown said he was constrained by Tennessee law to deny the new trial being sought by Ray because the time limit allowed for such appeals had long since expired.

Judge Brown is hearing Ray's ninth appeal since he pleaded guilty in 1968.

But in a telephone interview yesterday, Judge Brown said he would nevertheless allow evidence to be presented so that an appellate court would have available the kinds of evidence that the law prevented Judge Brown's court from considering.

"This is not going to be a new trial, but it amounts to the same thing," the judge said. "Dr. King is one of three people for whom we have a national holiday, and everything about the case is a matter of extreme historical curiosity. At least the historical record will be illuminated by the process."

Ray, who is serving a 99-year sentence for killing Dr. King, has been trying to take back his guilty plea almost since he entered it.

His latest appeal involves assertions by a retired Memphis businessman, Lloyd Jowers, who said last summer that he had hired the assassin of Dr. King on orders from New Orleans organized-crime figures and a Memphis grocer who is now dead. Mr. Jowers said that the man he hired was not Ray.

Local prosecutors who looked into the assertions concluded that they were not supported by any known evidence.

John Campbell, an assistant Shelby County prosecutor, said the ruling yesterday would lead to "an open-ended session" in which Ray's lawyers could put whomever they pleased on the witness stand.

It is not the first time since he was imprisoned that Ray has been allowed to call witnesses, Mr. Campbell said, noting that on at least two other occasions courts had allowed him to question his former lawyers. Ray had accused them of negligence in his defense.

Mr. Campbell also said Ray had previously testified himself about what Ray asserted was a conspiracy by the FBI in the King assassination.

Lawyers for Ray said they may call as many as 60 witnesses and had no idea how long the testimony would take. Judge Brown has given them until June 6 to indicate when they would be prepared to begin their presentation.

It may turn out, Judge Brown said, that Tennessee's laws prohibiting late appeals is defective because some evidence may not be known or knowable to a convicted person and their lawyer until after the expiration of the time limit for appeals.

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