How did James Earl Ray, the man charged with killing MLK, die?

Bruno Cooke January 14, 2022
How did James Earl Ray, the man charged with killing MLK, die?
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images


Martin Luther King Jr Day, officially Birthday Of Martin Luther King Jr – or simply MLK Day – falls on Monday, 17 January this year. In the lead up to the day, or indeed during and afterwards, those commemorating America’s most famous activist may wonder about the fate of the man charged with King’s assassination. So, how did James Earl Ray die and how old was he at the time of his death?

How did James Earl Ray die?

James Earl Ray died on 23 April 1998 in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 70. He was serving a 99-year sentence for the assassination of Dr King, the New York Times reported the day after his death, although he had, during the latter years of his life, “tantalised America” with suggestions his confession “amounted to a lie”.

The Tennessee Department Of Correction attributed his death to kidney failure and liver disease. He had received multiple treatments for both during the last two years of his life.

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In March 1997, 13 months before he died, Dr King’s son Dexter Scott King (pictured below, third from the left) had met with James Earl Ray to tell him, the NYT wrote, “the family believed in his innocence”.

Who was James Earl Ray and what impact did his death have?

Born on 10 March 1928 in Alton, Illinois, James Earl Ray was the son of Lucille and George Ellis Ray. He had a Catholic upbringing.

He was the firstborn of nine. His siblings included John Larry Ray, Franklin Ray, Jerry William Ray, Melba Ray, Carol Ray Pepper, Suzan Ray and Marjorie Ray. At the time of his death, he was survived by six of them.

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4/8/1968-Memphis, TN- Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the arm of Dr. Ralph Abernathy, her husband’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, leads a march of some 10,000 persons April 8th, as a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, who was slain here April 4th. Persons identified from left in front row are: Harry Belafonte, King’s sons, Martin III and Dexter; Mrs. King; Dr. Abernathy and Rev. Andrew Young, another King aide. Jesse Jackson stand behind Mrs. King and Abernathy.

Ray’s sister Marjorie died as a young child in 1933. Ray left school aged 12 and joined the army in 1945.

Shortly after he died, Martin Luther King Jr’s widow, Coretta Scott King, described James Earl Ray’s death as a “tragedy”.

“Not only for Mr Ray and his family but also for the entire nation. America will never have the benefit of Mr Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr as well as establish the facts concerning Mr Ray’s innocence.”

Why did he leave the military?

According to Biography, James Earl Ray found it difficult to “adapt” to the military’s “strict codes of conduct”.

“He was charged with drunkenness and breaking arrest before getting discharged for ineptness and lack of adaptability in 1948.”

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The day after James Earl Ray’s death, The New York Times claimed his brother Jerry had once described him as “an admirer of Hitler”.

When he pled guilty to MLK’s assassination in March 1969, James Earl Ray avoided a possible death sentence as the law at the time meant only conviction at trial could result in capital punishment.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or