WASHINGTON, June 9 -- The latest Justice Department review of allegations surrounding the 1968 King assassination, released Friday, finds no evidence of a larger conspiracy and concludes James Earl Ray was not framed as the assassin.
The preliminary findings of the review were exclusively reported by United Press International last year.
The final draft of the report has been in the Justice Department for months, waiting for final approval before being released. Members of the King family, particularly King's widow, Corretta Scott King, requested the extensive review because of what they called "new evidence" surfacing decades years after the assassination.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., probably the country's greatest civil rights leader, was killed by a sniper in Memphis in 1968. James Earl Ray was arrested as a fugitive in Britain, confessed to the killing and was sentenced to life in prison. He later recanted his confession, claiming that King was the victim of a shadowy conspiracy involving a man named "Raoul." He died of liver disease in 1998.
After a year and a half of investigation, principally by the civil rights division, the Justice Department has concluded that the "new evidence" purporting to cast doubt on Ray's guilt is not credible.
One of the theories knocked down by the report is a claim by Memphis tavern owner Loyd Jowers.
In 1993, Jowers claimed he participated in a conspiracy to kill King. The alleged conspiracy consisted of Jowers, a Mafia figure, Memphis police officers and "Raoul."
Jowers refused an offer of immunity from the Justice Department to cooperate in its latest review, and died last month of a heart attack.
"For 25 years following the assassination, Jowers never claimed any specific involvement in or knowledge of a conspiracy," the department report said. "...From the beginning, Jowers' story has been the product of a carefully orchestrated promotional effort."
Citing constant contradictions, his attempt to make money from his allegations and his refusal to testify in a Memphis civil suit filed by the King family, the report says, "We do not believe that Jowers, or those he accuses, participated in the assassination of Dr. King."
Donald Wilson, a former FBI agent, alleged in March 1998 that he had been concealing facts about the King assassination for 30 years. Wilson said that as a rookie officer in April 1968 "he went to the scene where Ray's Ford Mustang had been abandoned in Atlanta, Ga. Once there, Wilson purportedly opened the Mustang's door and a small envelope containing several papers fell out," the report said. "According to Wilson, he took the papers, hid them and told no one about them for 30 years."
One of the documents supplied by Wilson to the Justice Department is a portion of a 1963 Dallas phone directory with handwritten entries and information associated with the 1963 Kennedy assassination, including the telephone numbers of Jack Ruby, who killed Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and of the Hunt family, prominent Texans who some have alleged were involved in a conspiracy to kill the president.
The second document has two handwritten columns of notations, "neither of which appears to have a connection to Dr. King's assassination," the report said. "Both documents have handwritten entries with the name Raul."
The report said Wilson has made contradictory statements about his alleged find, sometimes claiming four documents, sometimes two, sometimes five. "We found nothing to substantiate any of Wilson's varied claims about his discovery of the documents."
The report said photographs of Ray's Mustang show the passenger side door closed and locked when the FBI was on the scene, "not ajar and unlocked as Wilson claimed." There is also no evidence to back up Wilson's claims that he was on the scene, or to show that the documents he supplied to the Justice Department were genuine.
"The possibility that the documents actually came from Ray's car is even more remote since Ray himself did not remember them," the report said.
The question of Raoul, or Raul, is central to claims by Jowers, Wilson and Ray.
Ray claimed Raoul lured him to Memphis and contrived to leave Ray's fingerprints on the murder weapon. A number of individuals have been identified as "Raoul" but all have been found to have no connection to the assassination. Since all references to the shadowy figure originated with Ray, the report said Justice Department investigators concentrated on his statements.
Given Ray's contradictions, his statements "suggest that Raoul is simply Ray's creation," the report concluded, and "there is no reliable evidence that a Raoul participated in the assassination."
The review also looked at the evidence that surfaced in the civil suit against Jowers in a Tennessee court. A state jury ruled last December that Jowers and "others, including government agencies," participated in the assassination.
"Nothing offered during the trial alters our conclusion regarding Jowers' or Wilson's allegations," the report said, noting that the evidence consisted of hearsay, sometimes second- and third-hand accounts. One deposition from a witness who did not testify at trial claimed the witness participated in an assassination conspiracy initiated by the president, the vice president and the head of the AFL-CIO.
A separate plaintiff theory presented at the trial suggested that two black ministers associated with King plotted to kill him, something the report called "far-fetched and unpersuasive."
The report said the evidence used in the civil trial "consisted of inaccurate and incomplete information or unsubstantiated conjecture, supplied most often by sources, many unnamed, who did not testify."
Previous investigations of the King assassination, besides the FBI's, include one by a 1977 Justice Department task force, a 1979 congressional investigation (which said Ray's brothers might have been his accomplices and two racist St. Louis businessmen might have put up a bounty for King's murder) and a 1998 Shelby County, Tenn., district attorney. All discounted Ray's claims that "Raoul" engineered the assassination, or even existed.