ATLANTA -- It was, as Dexter King kept saying, an "awkward" moment. What does a son say to the man who once confessed to killing his father?
Twenty-nine years after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader's son met yesterday with a dying James Earl Ray.
The two men shook hands and made small talk.
And then King, looking Ray in the eye, slid ever so gently toward the heart of the matter. He asked the question he'd traveled from Atlanta to a Nashville, Tenn., prison hospital to ask: "Did you kill my father?"
"No, no," a frail Ray said. "I didn't."
"Well," King replied, "as awkward as this may seem, I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you, and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail."
Ray confessed to killing King in 1969 and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He recanted three days later, claiming that his lawyer had coerced him. The judge died while considering his request for a trial. Ray has been trying to get a trial ever since.
William Pepper, Ray's attorney and a former associate of Martin Luther King, says Ray was a pawn of government forces who manipulated him and conspired with organized crime to murder King.
A Tennessee criminal appeals court is considering whether to grant a request to allow experts hired by Pepper to test the rifle and remnants of the fatal bullet with a sophisticated electron microscope. Earlier tests by government experts were inconclusive.
While yesterday's meeting was the first between Ray and a member of King's family, a number of the civil rights leader's close associates have long championed Ray's innocence. Pepper first met with Ray in 1978. After that meeting and subsequent investigatory work, Pepper said he became convinced of Ray's innocence.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson -- who was with King when he was shot -- wrote the foreword to a book Ray wrote proclaiming his innocence. And the Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles, who coordinated the garbage workers strike that brought King to Memphis, Tenn., where he was killed in 1968, is a staunch supporter who performed Ray's jail-house wedding.
During Dexter King's 20-minute conversation with Ray in front of television cameras, he seemed to embrace Ray's innocence fully. "In a strange sort of way," he said at one point, "we're both victims."
King, 36, also spoke of the "strange ironies" that now have united King's friends and family with Ray in a search to uncover the whole story of what happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when a rifle bullet ripped into his father's face. Quoting his father, King said, "We are all caught up in a mutual garment of destiny."
Ray, wearing a faded blue prison uniform and trembling slightly, entered the room in a wheelchair but moved to a chair opposite King for their conversation.
King called the meeting a "spiritual experience."
Television cameras were present at the beginning of their talk. Then the room was cleared and the two men spoke privately.
Acknowledging that it is "the 11th hour," with Ray expected to die within a year from cirrhosis of the liver, King, 36, promised to work with Ray's attorney "in any way I can to try and bring forth the necessary forum to help exonerate you and continue the struggle."
Pub Date: 3/28/97