Judge says King rifle may not be murder weapon

Monday, November 22nd 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) - The judge who presided over confessed killer James Earl Ray's most recent try for freedom said Monday he does not believe the rifle identified as the one used to kill Martin Luther King Jr. was the murder weapon. Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown was called to testify in Civil Court where the King family is suing Loyd Jowers for wrongful death.

Jowers is a retired Memphis businessman who has claimed he took part in a conspiracy to kill King. The Kings hope the trial, which began last week, will help answer lingering questions on whether the murder was the work of a lone gunman or a group of conspirators. The King family subpoenaed Brown and hoped his testimony would bolster the theory that someone other than Ray killed King.

Brown, who was allowed to testify as a firearms expert, said the rifle found at the scene of King's murder in 1968, with Ray's fingerprints on it, was equipped with a scope that had not been properly sighted. A shooter, he said, "could not hit the broad side of a barn "with that rifle." Brown also said marks left on most of the test bullets fired from the rifle last year on his orders are different from those found on the slug taken from King's body.

Ballistics experts testifying in Brown's court last year said those marks were of little significance. Ray argued for years that the rifle, which he purchased in Alabama and brought to Memphis, was dropped at the murder scene to frame him. His guilty plea was upheld eight times by state and federal courts. "It is my opinion this is not the murder weapon," Brown said. Brown, who stars on a national TV show called "Judge Joe Brown," presided over Ray's attempts last year to take back his guilty plea to killing King. Ray died of liver disease in prison.

Brown ordered new tests on the rifle but they, and other tests over the years, were inconclusive. He was considering another round of tests when a state appeals court took him off the case because of prosecution claims he was biased toward Ray. It is unclear if Jowers, 73, will testify at the trial. The Kings seek unspecified damages if he is found guilty of taking part in the murder.