Two months after King's death, escaped convict James Earl Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd on his way to white-ruled Rhodesia. Ray was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King's murder. He confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969, though he recanted this confession three days later. On the advice of his attorney Percy Foreman, Ray pleaded guilty to avoid a trial conviction and thus the possibility of receiving the death penalty. Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. Ray fired Foreman as his attorney, from then on derisively calling him "Percy Fourflusher". He claimed a man he met in Montreal, Quebec, with the alias "Raoul" was involved and that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy. He spent the remainder of his life attempting, unsuccessfully, to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial he never had. On June 10, 1977, shortly after Ray had testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he did not shoot King, he and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee. They were recaptured on June 13 and returned to prison.
Allegations of conspiracy
Ray's lawyers maintained he was a scapegoat similar to the way that John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is seen by conspiracy theorists. One of the claims used to support this assertion is that Ray's confession was given under pressure, and he had been threatened with the death penalty. Ray was a thief and burglar, but he had no record of committing violent crimes with a weapon.
Those suspecting a conspiracy in the assassination point out the two separate ballistics tests conducted on the Remington Gamemaster recovered by police had neither conclusively proved Ray had been the killer nor that it had even been the murder weapon. Moreover, witnesses surrounding King at the moment of his death say the shot came from another location, from behind thick shrubbery near the rooming house – which had been inexplicably cut away in the days following the assassination – and not from the rooming house window.
In 1997, King's son Dexter Scott King met with Ray, and publicly supported Ray's efforts to obtain a new trial. Two years later, Coretta Scott King, King's widow, along with the rest of King's family, won a wrongful death claim against Loyd Jowers and "other unknown co-conspirators". Jowers claimed to have received $100,000 to arrange King's assassination. The jury of six whites and six blacks found Jowers guilty and that government agencies were party to the assassination. William F. Pepper represented the King family in the trial. King biographer David Garrow disagrees with William F. Pepper's claims that the government killed King. He is supported by author Gerald Posner who has researched and written about the assassination.
In 2000, the United States Department of Justice completed the investigation about Jowers' claims but did not find evidence to support allegations about conspiracy. The investigation report recommended no further investigation unless some new reliable facts are presented. The New York Times reported a church minister, Rev. Ronald Denton Wilson, claimed his father, Henry Clay Wilson—not James Earl Ray—assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. He stated, "It wasn't a racist thing; he thought Martin Luther King was connected with communism, and he wanted to get him out of the way."
King's friend and colleague, James Bevel, disputed the argument that Ray acted alone, stating, "There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man." In 2004, Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the time of his death, noted:
"The fact is there were saboteurs to disrupt the march. And within our own organization, we found a very key person who was on the government payroll. So infiltration within, saboteurs from without and the press attacks. ...I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray."