MAY 8, 2000 VOLUME 7, NUMBER 45
James Earl Ray was convicted in the 1969 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray died in prison in 1998, although he had by that time filed at least eight separate appeals seeking his release. His estate now provides the legal world with an odd footnote.
When Ray was charged with murder in the Shelby County, Tennessee, courts, several items of evidence were introduced in the state’s case against him. The physical evidence included the .30-06 hunting rifle he used in the killing, a transistor radio, a pair of binoculars, a Schlitz beer can and various personal items. He plead guilty in March, 1969, but that physical evidence has been sitting in the court’s evidence locker for three decades.
Ray’s brother Jerry decided that he wanted James Earl Ray’s property returned to him as the next of kin. It is not clear whether the property retains some sentimental value, whether it might be used in subsequent attempts to have James Earl Ray exonerated of the original charges, or whether Jerry Ray is interested in capitalizing on the financial value of the macabre items, but he began a probate proceeding in Davidson County, Tennessee, to deal with his brother’s personal property.
Jerry Ray then petitioned the probate court for an order directing the criminal court to release the gun and other items to him as Personal Representative of James Earl Ray’s estate. The State of Tennessee (through the State Attorney General) intervened, arguing that it owned the property because of earlier orders of the Tennessee Supreme Court and a law passed by the Tennessee State legislature. That law authorized court clerks to transfer evidence to a university, library, museum or other non-profit organization when the items had historical significance.
The probate court agreed with the State and denied Jerry Ray’s request for release of his brother’s property. Jerry Ray appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
The appellate court agreed that Jerry Ray’s claim should be dismissed, but on a different basis. Rather than determine the validity and effect of the Tennessee law permitting transfer of "historically significant" evidence to museums and libraries, the judges decided that Jerry Ray had gone to the wrong court. The probate court of one county, they decided, has no authority to direct the criminal court in another county to do anything with its evidence. Ray v. State of Tennessee, April 18, 2000.
Arizona’s court structure is different from Tennessee’s. Probate court is not separate but is a specialized division of the general court. In addition, each county’s court in Arizona is integrated with other courts around the state. Jerry Ray might have lost the same argument in Arizona, but at least he would only have had to make the argument once.