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Liver for Ray

September 02, 1997
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - If the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King got his way, Missouri taxpayers could end up paying the cost of giving him a life-saving liver transplant.

James Earl Ray, 69, is suffering from terminal liver disease while pursuing a new trial for the King assassination.

Recently, a University of Pittsburgh doctor said Ray probably would die in four to six months unless he receives a liver transplant -- an operation that could extend his life another ten years.

Missouri enters the story because Ray would end up in the hands of Missouri prison officials if Ray ever gets his wish for release from the Tennessee prison.

Ray escaped from the Jefferson City Correctional Center more than 30 years ago - nearly one year before the Memphis killing of King.

Thus, Ray automatically would be returned to Missouri if he were released by the state of Tennessee for any reason.

If Ray was released from Tennessee without being given the transplant, Missouri Corrections would "follow what the experts say," according to Tim Kneist, spokesman for the department.

"This is a question of medical procedure rather than correctional practice, regardless of whether or not they're a prisoner," said Kneist.

Kneist said the state has a detainer lodged against Ray because of his 1967 escape. That detainer would bring Ray back to the Missouri correctional system if he were released from Tennessee.

"He still owes time on a conviction in Missouri he was serving time on when he escaped," Kneist said.

Gov. Mel Carnahan's spokesman Chris Sifford said Ray would not be pardoned from his Missouri sentence even if he were exonerated in the King assassination case.

"I'm sure we would consider the request, but the expectation from the state of Missouri is that he would serve out the remainder of his sentence," said Sifford.

Ray confessed to the killing of the civil rights leader in 1968 but immediately recanted, claiming he was coerced. For the past 29 years he has been seeking a re-trial.

Repeated appeals in Tennessee courts, as well as ballistics test on the rifle allegedly used to kill King, have not been fruitful for Ray. Regardless, there are several, including the King family, who continue to support Ray in his pursuit of a new trial.

According to David Dormire, the superintendent of the Jefferson City Correctional Center, Ray still had 13 years left on his sentence when he escaped April 23, 1967. Furthermore, Dormire said convicts routinely receive an added two years to their sentence when they attempt "escape from confinement."

Dormire said Ray escaped from the Jefferson City prison by hiding in a crate.

"He went out in a truck we used to distribute bread to other prisons," said Dormire.