Mississippi

Case Not Closed

James Earl Ray’s attorney points his finger at the FBI

Mark Lane and his client James Earl Ray appearing before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. Lane died in 2016.

first published in The Riverfront Times (St. Louis), April 2, 1997

Mark Lane, former attorney for James Earl Ray, has spent much of his career questioning the official version of events concerning the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is the author of “Rush to Judgment,”the seminal critique of the Warren Commission., published in 1966. In 1977, he co-wrote, with Dick Gregory ,”Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.” A revised edition of the latter book was reissued in 1993 under the title ,”Murder in Memphis.”

As founder of the Citizens Commission on Inquiry in the mid 1970s, Lane lobbied Congress to form the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) . He later, however, became one of the harshest critics of the HSCA’ s findings. Now 70 years old, Lane maintains a private law practice in Washington, D.C. He spoke to The Riverfront Times by telephone about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from his office in the nation’s capital.

RFT: Why do you believe the political establishment is so intent upon covering up the evidence in the Martin Luther King murder case?

Lane: Because I think all the evidence points to the FBI. All the black leaders in America have been saying that from the very beginning. Everybody — Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory. …

If that is true, why did the FBI want King assassinated?

People can say that the removal of one person doesn’t change history, but the civil rights movement ended with his death. We had riots in cities all around the country, and have never gotten back on track in terms on any serious leadership in that movement. Killing King was very effective in that regard.

We know Hoover hated him. … He hated the idea that King was given the Nobel Prize. Hoover thought he should have gotten one. That was nuts.

We also know Hoover wanted King dead. He sent a tape (recording) to King with the suggestion that he `do the appropriate thing.’ Everybody agreed that what Hoover was saying was, `kill yourself.’ You don’t tell someone to kill himself unless you want him dead. If you have that kind of power, and you want him dead, you might (also) be able to put some wheels in motion.

You represented James Earl before the HSCA in 1978, correct?

I didn’t represent him at the time of the non-trial (in 1969). He was (then) represented by (Arthur) Hanes and then Percy Foreman. But after he was convicted and sentenced to 99 years he then asked me to represent him.
The civil rights movement and black activists wanted a trial, too, because they never believed the story that Ray did it. They believed that it was much more involved. So when Ray heard that I was writing about the assassination, and looking into it, he asked me to represent him. …

I myself was part of the civil rights movement. In fact, as a member of the (New York) state legislature, I was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Miss in 1961. I’m the only public official, I think, ever arrested as a Freedom Rider.

Of course, we couldn’t get a trial, although he was entitled to one by Tennessee law. The law says that if you make an application for a new trial and it’s pending and the judge dies or becomes permanently insane, you’re entitled to a trial. That’s what happened in this case. Judge (Preston W.) Battle died, after he got the application from James Earl Ray asking for a trial.

When was that?

Just a couple of days after the plea (in 1969). James wrote a letter (recanting his admission of guilt) at that time.
James was in that cell in Memphis 24-hours a day with lights on him, the room bugged completely the entire time. He was under surveillance for eight months. Finally, when he entered the plea, they put out the lights. He had one night’s sleep, and (then) wrote a letter to Judge Battle saying, `I was coerced into pleading guilty, I’m innocent and I want a trial.’

Battle went away on vacation, came back and dropped dead. That’s when the Tennessee annotated code should have came into play. He was entitled to a trial, but the state court said no in this case. It wasn’t possible because the law has nothing to do with justice when there are big political considerations. We could never get a trial.
Now Ray has asked me again to get information from the (government) under the Freedom of Information Act. His current lawyer Bill Pepper refused to because the King family doesn’t want him to do it.

Why was the HSCA trying to discredit you in 1978?

Because I was representing Ray. It’s kind of ironic since I wrote the legislation that set up the House Committee on Assassinations. I moved to Washington to do that. I got more than a hundred members of Congress to sign the petition to form that committee. I worked closely with Andy Young, then the chairman of the black caucus and his successor Yvonne Burke.

But the pressure was on them. I’ll tell you an example.
Dick Gregory is very well respected by the black leadership in this country. He called me after the Select Committee had been set up, and asked to meet with (U.S. Rep.) Walter Fauntroy at my house. Fauntroy was the delegate from Washington, D.C., and then the chairman of the subcommittee on the King assassination. He had worked with King.

I called Walter and said, `Greg wants to see you tonight at 8, can you come here?’ So they were here in the very same room from which I am in now talking to you. It’s my library on the second floor right across the street from the Supreme Court.

Fauntroy is a minister. … They’re sitting on the coach next to each other and Gregory says, `Let’s pray Walter.’ They both got down on their knees. I was sitting behind my desk watching this moment in history.
Gregory says: `This is the most important man in America — not the most important black man. Give him the courage, the ability to find out who killed Dr. King, and tell the truth to the American people.’ They both said amen and sat back down on the coach.

Walter, the chairman of the investigating committee, looks at Gregory, and says, `We know who did it.’

Gregory says, `Well, good.’

(Fauntroy says,) `We’ve discovered that already.’

Gregory replies, `Well, good. … All you have to do is tell everyone.’
Fauntroy says, `But, Dick, the FBI did it. The FBI is bugging my church, they’re bugging my home, they’re bugging my office. You can’t say what’s on your mind.’

Gregory says, `What do we love about Martin, Walter? He didn’t take private positions and public positions that were different.’

Fauntroy says, `Yeah, and they killed him, and I don’t want to be killed. I’m not going to say it.’

Gregory then looked at me like why did we do all this work to get this committee set up. … So that was the end of the investigation, just as soon as it began.

Didn’t the HSCA fire or dismiss the original head counsel Richard Sprague?

I got Dick Sprague as counsel. They were offering me the job as counsel to investigate the Kennedy assassination. I said, `I don’t think that would be useful because everybody knows my position. … I think you want to start with somebody who is tough and really doesn’t have a set position.’ I suggested Dick Sprague. I didn’t know Sprague, but he had just finished prosecuting Tony Boyle, the head of the United Mine Workers who murdered (dissident union leader) Joseph Yablonski.

So I went down to Philadelphia and spent hours with Sprague, and told him what I thought could be done. … (Then) I went back and I told that to the members of the committee, and they were very excited. … Then I returned to Philadelphia and met with Sprague. We took the train back into Washington, and I introduced him to members of the committee. That day they hired him.

Representatives from the FBI and the CIA (soon) came to see Sprague. They said, `Tell us who you’re thinking about having for your staff, we’ll do background searches. Furthermore, we’ll give you some documents that might help you.’

(Sprague replied:) `You guys are suspects at least in the coverup. You’re not clearing anybody for me. I’m going to back up trucks to your buildings and get all the documents that I want. I’m going to subpoena them. So don’t tell me you’re going to give me some selected documents.’

That started the campaign led by The New York Times and the Washington Post to get rid of Dick Sprague. They finally bounced him out.

The new head counsel Robert Blakey had subpoena power, but never subpoenaed a document. He closed down the investigation.That’s when everything went sour.

The committee decided that it was going to clear everybody. But there were enough members on that committee who had to go back to their districts and try to get re-elected. So while Blakey wanted the position to be that Oswald and Ray did it alone, no one would buy that. Instead, they took the position that there was a conspiracy in each case. But they didn’t know who did it (only that) Oswald and Ray were involved.

They then cleared the FBI and the CIA in a bizarre conclusion in which they said, We don’t know what group did it, but these groups didn’t do it. …

All the HSCA did was eliminate the FBI and CIA as suspects.