King family wins wrongful death suit against co-conspirators in Martin Luther King's murder - Court TV -  

Photograph of police responding to shooting

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 73-year-old Loyd 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 for."

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 interview.

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 King?'

"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

Christian Century: The King assassination: After three decades, another verdict.
Article reconsiders the original the verdict of the Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and explores other possible verdicts.

MLK Jr.: The Killing, The Family - Editorials & Opinion MLK Jr.: The Killing, The Family Despite recent court findings, the conspiracy theory is not credible. By Gerald Posner Monday,


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