MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Court TV) — A Memphis jury sided with the
family of Martin Luther King, Jr. Wednesday and agreed that a cafe
owner and several "unknown" conspirators were involved
in a 1968 plot to kill the civil rights leader.
In its wrongful death suit, the King family focused on
Jowers, who claimed in a 1993 interview with ABC
that he participated in a conspiracy to kill King that was hatched
in his cafe. He said that mobsters offered him $100,000 to find
someone to kill King.
King's relatives saw the suit as perhaps their final chance to
find out, in a court of law, the truth behind Martin Luther King,
Jr.'s slaying. Jurors awarded them only $100 in damages, but the
family insisted the suit was not about money. They insisted the
suit was a search for the truth. That search united them with Dr.
William Pepper, the longtime lawyer of one-time confessed King
assassin James Earl Ray.
Coretta Scott King, and her children, Dexter and Yolanda, all
testified that they were troubled by the assertion of government
and local officials that a so-called petty thief like Ray acted
alone in the murder. They expressed several theories: that Ray was
either innocent, a small part of a broader conspiracy, or the
unwitting fall guy in the murder plot. Dexter King was pleased —
and felt vindicated — by the jury's decision.
"I'm just so happy to see that the people have
spoken," he said. "This is what we've always asked
Dr. Pepper hoped a liability judgment against Jowers would
validate theories that Ray was set up as part of an alleged
conspiracy to kill King — allegations largely discounted by law
enforcement officials. Pepper and the King family joined forces
after the lawyer convinced them of his long-held conspiracy
beliefs in 1997. Dexter King visited Ray in March 1997 and told
him he believed he was innocent.
Ray initially admitted killing King, saying he fired the single
shot that killed King as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine
Motel. He pleaded guilty to King's murder in 1969 and received a
99-year sentence. Ray said he aimed from the second-floor bathroom
window of the rooming house.
But several days after his guilty plea, Ray recanted his story
and claimed his original lawyers coerced his confession. Sentenced
to nearly a century in prison, he spent the next 29 years of his
life trying to get a new trial before his death in 1998.
Both Dr. Pepper and the King family hope the victory will put
pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno, who ordered a federal
investigation into the King assassination in August 1998 after
meeting with King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and two of their
children. According to Pepper, a report on the federal
investigation has been overdue since last June.
Jowers' attorney agreed that a conspiracy did exist. But, Lewis
Garrison claimed, his client did not know King was the target when
he became involved in the murder plot. Jowers owned Jim's Grill,
the restaurant on the ground floor of a building that included the
rooming house where Ray was staying on April 1968. The
second-story rooming house overlooked the Lorraine Motel, where
King stayed during his fateful trip to Memphis.
Jurors deliberated without having heard from Jowers himself —
he fell ill during the trial and became bedridden. But they heard
Jowers incriminate himself and contradict his defense in his ABC
During the three-week trial, jurors were read a deposition
Jowers gave investigators in November 1994, a year after his
incriminating interview with ABC. Invoking his Fifth Amendment
protection against self-incrimination, Jowers refused to answer
questions about the interview, particularly whether James Earl
Ray, the man convicted for King's murder, actually killed King or
whether Jowers knew who killed King.
Plaintiffs attorney Dr. Pepper read portions of a transcript of
Jowers' interview with ABC's Sam Donaldson, where the defendant
was much more forthcoming.
"Donaldson: 'Mr. Jowers, did James Earl Ray kill Martin
Luther King, Jr.?'" Pepper read.
"Jowers: No, sir. ... I know who was paid to do it.'
"Donaldson: 'Was there a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther
"Jowers: 'Yes, sir, there sure was.'
"Donaldson: 'Were you involved in it?'
"Jowers: 'I was involved in it indirectly.'"
Jowers then explained in the transcript that he became involved
in the conspiracy to repay a large favor to a Memphis produce
manager Frank Liberto, who is now deceased.
Before the killing, Jowers said, he received $100,000 in a
produce box to give to a man known only as "Raoul."
Raoul later gave Jowers a rifle in a box and asked him to hold the
rifle until either he, Jowers, or the both of them made the
arrangements for King's murder.
On the day of the murder, Jowers said, he gave the rifle to a
now-deceased Memphis police officer. After King was killed, said
Jowers, the same officer returned the still-smoking gun to him.
Jowers said he eventually handed it over to Raoul and never saw
the gun again.
Last week, Dexter King told jurors about two conversations he
allegedly had with Jowers in 1997 where the 73-year-old man
admitted his role in the assassination and identified Memphis
Chief Inspector Earl Clark [who is now deceased] as the officer
involved in the conspiracy. On the day of the killing, King
recalled Jowers saying that he gave the murder weapon to Clark.
It remains to be seen if the family's victory in its wrongful
death suit will uncover any more unknown facts in King's death.
The King family will give a press conference Thursday.
— Bryan Robinson