Foreman first entered the case when Ray was falling out with his then lawyer, Arthur Hanes. The main cause of their conflict was author William Bradford Huie who had contacted Hanes before he first visited with Ray in London, saying that he wanted exclusive rights to Ray's story. The three had quickly entered into an agreement in which Huie would give Hanes and Ray a percentage of the gross receipts from his writings and Ray's share would go to Hanes to pay for his defense. Huie never actually met with Ray because he was not allowed to visit him in jail. Instead he would ask him questions via Hanes. But when information Hanes gave to Huie appeared in articles he wrote for Look magazine, Ray became upset. “My anger at Huie”, Ray later wrote, “focused on his revealing the defense too soon.” (Ray, Who Killed Martin Luther King?, p. 117)
Things came to a head when Ray came to believe that Huie was also behind Hanes' insistence that he should not take the stand to testify in his own defense; something Ray was determined to do. Huie, quite clearly, did not want Ray to testify because his story would then become public domain and Huie's exclusive rights would become worthless. In an effort to keep him off the stand, Huie sent Ray's brother Jerry a first-class plane ticket to visit with him in Hartselle, Alabama. According to Jerry, Huie wasted no time in offering him $13,000 up front “if I could get Jimmy to guarantee that he would not take the witness stand on his own behalf...Huie went on to say that the $13,000.00 was just for 'starters,' that there would be 'plenty more' if I could convince Jimmy not to take the witness stand...I countered that possibly the Haneses might not go for that. Immediately, Huie's ego overtook him, and he puffed up like a spoiled kid. 'I'm the one controlling the money here!' he stormed. 'You let me worry about the Haneses; they'll do whatever I tell them to do!'” Disturbed by his meeting with Huie, Jerry went to visit with Ray in prison and informed him that “Huie's controlling the case, not the Haneses.” (Ray & Tamara Carter, A Memoir of Injustice, p. 78-79) He suggested that his brother get a new lawyer. “I saw this famous Texas lawyer, Percy Foreman, on a TV talk show,” Jerry said. “He looked to me like he knew his business.” (Who Killed Martin Luther King?, p. 118)
Ray agreed that it was time to look for new representation but he wanted a lawyer based in Tennessee. Nonetheless, Jerry went ahead and contacted Foreman on his own. Foreman said he was interested in taking the case but wanted a letter from Ray requesting that he visit him in jail. Ray refused to write the letter and and said he would go to trial with Hanes. Jerry again contacted Foreman who asked Jerry and his other brother John to meet him at Memphis International airport and to bring with them copies of the contracts between Huie, Hanes and Ray. Contracts in hand, one day before Ray's trial was to begin, Foreman made his way to the Shelby County Jail. As Ray later testified, once there, Foreman told him that “the only thing Mr. Hanes and Mr. Huie was interested in was money...and if I stuck with them I would be barbecued.” (Mark Lane and Dick Gregory, Murder in Memphis, p. 193) He told Ray that, if hired, he could break the contracts with Hanes and Huie and would ensure that no more stories were written until after the trial. He also boasted about his impressive record of losing only one client to the electric chair in over 1500 death-penalty cases. Suitably impressed by Foreman's spiel, Ray agreed to fire Hanes and retain Foreman.
Within a few days, having had the trial postponed, Foreman had set up residence at the historic Peabody hotel in downtown Memphis where, according to Jerry Ray, he did little more than drink Scotch and talk about himself. As Jerry describes it, “You couldn't get a word in edgewise with Foreman, because he manipulated the entire conversation by loudly revealing his accomplishments...He would knock back a healthy slug of scotch and prance around the room like a rooster. He really enjoyed rehashing the Candace Mossler murder trial in which he had defended Candy Mossler. He said, 'Everybody knew that Candy and her stud nephew cold-bloodedly murdered Jaques Mossler for his money...By the time I was through with the jury, they wanted to raise Jaques Mossler and kill him all over again! And I can do the same damn thing with your brother's case. Hell, boy, they don't have any solid evidence on your brother...This is the easiest murder case I've ever defended...I don't even have to prepare. All I've gotta do is sit here in the Peabody, call up room service, sip on good scotch, and give some interviews to the press until trial.'” (A Memoir of Injustice, p. 82-83)
Foreman's disinterest in preparing a defense was also noted by Arthur Hanes, who said that he offered him all of his files without fee but Foreman didn't want them. “We showed him what we had, advised him he was welcome to everything he could see...We tried to outline the case for him, tell him what we knew. He didn't seem to be too interested. We offered him everything we had. He took nothing with him.” Hanes' son, Arthur, Jr., who assisted in Ray's defense, concurred: “He wasn't interested in the case. He wanted to drink some scotch, eat some dinner, and talk about his famous cases. He also told us about how he made speeches all over the country.” (Murder in Memphis, p. 200) By his own admission, Foreman never even asked Ray if he was guilty or whether or not there had been a conspiracy. In fact he told reporters after the guilty plea hearing, “I don't give a damn if there was a conspiracy.” (Harold Weisberg, Frame-Up, p. 85)
Foreman, of course, would never admit that he had conducted no investigation on Ray's behalf nor that he had never really intended to try the case. He claimed to have devoted 80 to 90% of his time to Ray's case and stated under oath during a civil action that he had employed “six or eight” students from Memphis State University as investigators. And yet he could not provide the name of a single one of these students. Nor could he remember when he hired them, how much they were paid, or how many hours they spent investigating. (HSCA MLK Vol. 5 p. 152-163) The HSCA apparently tracked down one of these students, a man named Thomas Emerson Smith, who “told the committee that neither he nor any of the other students who were chosen to work with Foreman ever conducted a single interview. In fact, according to Smith, the group was never asked by Foreman to carry out any type of investigation whatsoever.” (HSCA MLK Vol. 13, p. 228) Little wonder, then, that Foreman “couldn't recall” the details.
Although he claimed to have personally interviewed many witnesses, the HSCA noted that “Numerous witnesses were never contacted by Foreman or any of his representatives.” (ibid.) Among those whom Foreman admitted he had never bothered interviewing was the State's star-witness, Charles Stephens—the one and only witness whom the State claimed could identify Ray as fleeing the scene. The HSCA also reported that “Foreman has refused to give the numbers or identities of all the witnesses that he claimed to have interviewed.” (ibid.) Which is not surprising really since he was clearly lying through his teeth. He was never able to provide any files from his investigation, to the HSCA or anyone else, for the obvious reason that he never conducted one. He never even attempted to obtain the FBI ballistics report that concluded the death slug could not be matched to Ray's rifle. Among the many lies Foreman told to cover his own ass was that he had spent up to 75 hours questioning Ray. As the HSCA found out, this was demonstratively false. The Shelby County jail logs “indicated that Foreman visited with Ray approximately 20 hours from the time he entered the case in November 1968 to the March 10, 1969, guilty plea. According to the logs, Foreman spent an inordinately small amount of time with his client for a case of such magnitude.” (HSCA Report, p. 320)
The only thing Foreman showed any real interest in once he entered the case was making sure he received his $150,000 fee. Upon replacing Hanes, one of the first things he did was get Ray to sign his Ford Mustang and the alleged murder weapon over to him. Soon after, he contacted William Bradford Huie and, on November 27, 1968, the pair met for lunch. Huie wrote of the meeting: “Mr. Foreman liked my three-way contract with Ray. All he wanted was for Mr. Hanes to get out so he could have what Mr. Hanes had had. 'I like the idea of owning sixty per cent of one of your books,' he said, 'while you own only forty per cent. So you get Hanes out and let me in, then, goddamit, get to work and write us a good book and make us a good movie and make us some money.'” (Huie, He Slew the Dreamer, p. 208) Once he had gotten Hanes out of the way, and had Ray's share of the royalties signed over to himself, Foreman went about thinking up other ways in which he could line his own pocket.
On one occasion, he tried to get Ray to agree to an interview with establishment author George McMillan for which McMillan would be willing to pay at least $5000. Ray declined. On another, without Ray's knowledge, he went before the Judge presiding over the case and asked for permission to have a photographer from Life magazine take pictures of Ray in his jail cell. “In exchange for exclusive rights to publish the photographs”, Ray recalled, “Life would contribute $5000 to my defense fund, better known as Percy Foreman's pocket.” (Who Killed Martin Luther King? p. 124) After Judge Preston Battle turned him down, Foreman showed up at Ray's cell with copies of the infamous photographs of three tramps who were arrested in Dealey Plaza on the day of President Kennedy's assassination. As part of another attempt to cut a deal with Life magazine, he wanted Ray to identify one of the tramps as “Raoul”, the man Ray said set him up.
On February 13, 1969, Foreman abruptly arrived at Ray's cell with a letter for him to sign. As Ray recalled, Foreman told him that “he needed 'evidence' that he had advised me to let him negotiate a guilty plea on my behalf.” (Who Killed Martin Luther King?, p. 127) Ray signed the letter in acknowledgement of receipt but told Foreman that he didn't intend to plead guilty. What Ray did not know was that Foreman had already been discussing the possibility of a guilty plea with the prosecution for several weeks and he was determined to make it happen. In the letter he had Ray sign, Foreman wrote that in his opinion there was “little more than a ninety-nine percent chance of your receiving a death penalty verdict if your case goes to trial. Furthermore, there is a hundred percent chance of a guilty verdict.” He told Ray that the media had already convicted him, pointing to specific articles in Life, Reader's Digest, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and suggested that “the court clerk would manipulate the juror pool so I'd be up against a panel of angry blacks intent on revenge and chamber-of-commerce types who only wanted to lock me up and get back to business.” (ibid.) Nonetheless, Ray stood his ground and insisted on going to trial.
Foreman then travelled to St. Louis and attempted to convince members of Ray's family to help him persuade Ray to plead guilty. Jerry recalled that Foreman was “crying and putting on a show...He told us that if Jimmy demanded a trial and took the witness stand, he would surely fry in the hot seat.” (A Memoir of Injustice, p. 83) The family did not agree but that did not stop Foreman from telling Ray that they did. He worked on Ray relentlessly, insisting, “They're gonna fry your ass”. But Ray still would not give in. He then resorted to what Ray called “terror tactics”. The FBI, he said, had been looking into the criminal history of the family. He said they were going to send Ray's father back to Iowa prison for a 40-year-old parole violation and they were going to arrest his brother Jerry as a co-conspirator in the King slaying. Finally, Foreman told him that if he forced the case to trial, “he couldn't swear he'd do his utmost to defend me.” ( Who Killed Martin Luther King?, p. 131)
Worried that Foreman would purposely throw the case and doom him to the electric chair, Ray wanted to change lawyers again. However, Judge Preston Battle would not allow any further continuances and said that if Ray dismissed Foreman he would have to go to trial with the public defender, Hugh Stanton. Stanton had joined the defense against Ray's wishes on December 18, 1968, and, when Foreman had missed a court appearance due to pneumonia, Judge Battle had promoted Stanton to co-counsel. The most remarkable aspect of his appointment to the defense is that Stanton was already the attorney for the State's star witness, Charlie Stephens. Apparently Judge Battle was unconcerned about the obvious conflict of interest. In any case, Ray did not trust Stanton (with good reason, it turns out, since Stanton was in the prosecutor's office within hours of his appointment offering to plead his new client) and believed he had little choice but to stick with Foreman.
Ray was weakening so Foreman pressed his advantage. He convinced Ray that once the plea hearing was over, he could hire another lawyer who could easily get the case re-opened and Ray could have the trial he desired. He offered to give Ray's brother Jerry $500 to hire a lawyer providing he agreed to plead guilty. He even put this writing in a March 9, 1969, letter that stipulated the $500 advance was “contingent upon the plea of guilty and sentence going through on March 10, 1969, without any unseemly conduct on your part in court.” Finally, feeling he had little choice, Ray relented, agreed to plead guilty, and accepted a 99-year sentence.
There is one important factor that the reader needs to bear in mind here and that is that, thanks to the deeply unsettling conditions of his incarceration, Ray was in a severely weakened mental state when he finally gave in to Foreman's persistent and aggressive campaign. For eight months he was kept in a maximum security cell with steel plates over the windows and blinding lights on him 24-hours-a-day. He was not allowed outside to get fresh air, and cameras and microphones picked up his every move. Two guards were always present in his cell with him and he was not even allowed to use the toilet without supervision. Jerry Ray noted that “It was an obvious attempt by the System to break down Jimmy emotionally, physically and mentally, in hopes of rendering him incapable of making sound decisions.” (A Memoir of Injustice, p. 76) Which, in the end, is exactly what happened. In 1979, the HSCA satisfied itself based on the testimony of Dr. McCarthy DeMere—a plastic surgeon and reserve deputy sheriff who was assigned to look after Ray following his extradition—that “The facilities Ray occupied were comparable to a good motel suite and compared favourably to a first-grade suite in an ordinary hospital”. (HSCA Report, p. 322) Which would almost be funny if it wasn't so disgusting. The committee did not take testimony from Ray's London solicitor, Michael Eugene, who visited with him in early 1969 and was taken aback by the deterioration in Ray's condition; saying that he looked sick, weak, and nervous. (Mark Lane & Dick Gregory, Murder in Memphis, p. 190) Which, Ray said, is exactly how he felt.
Should the reader doubt that his jail conditions had a significant effect on Ray's mental health, and played an integral part in his decision to plead guilty, they need understand only one thing: Shortly after his extradition, the State offered Ray, through the Haneses, a life-sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. A life sentence in Tennessee in 1968 was only 13 years. And, as Hanes Jr. testified in 1999, the plea bargain they were offered at that point “allowed for parole in ten years.” (The 13th Juror, p. 208) Ray turned the offer down and insisted on going to trial. If Ray were in his right mind in March of 1969, would he, having already turned down a sentence of 13 years with possibility of parole after 10, have accepted a 99-year sentence with no possibility of parole? Of course not. The hellish conditions of his jail cell quite clearly deteriorated his physical and mental well-being to the point that he was unable to think clearly or resist the pressure put on him by his own lawyer, the “great” Percy Foreman.
Even so, on the day of his hearing, Ray made sure to get something important on record. When Judge Battle asked “Are you pleading guilty of murder in the first degree in this case because you killed Dr. Martin Luther King under such circumstances that it would make you legally guilty of murder in the first degree under the law as explained to you by your lawyers?” Ray equivocated, “Yes, legally guilty, uh-huh.” [my emphasis] Then, shortly after Foreman had told the jury “Took me a month to convince myself of the fact which the Attorney General of the United States and J. Edgar Hoover...anounced last July; that is, just what Gen. Canale has told you, that there was not a conspiracy”, Ray interrupted the proceedings:
Mr. RAY: Your honor, I would like to say something too, if I may.
THE COURT: All right.
Mr. RAY: I don't want to change anything I have said. I don't want to add anything onto it either. The only thing I have to say is, I don't exactly accept the theories of Mr. Clark. In other words, I am not bound to accept these theories of Mr. Clark.
Mr. FOREMAN: Who is Mr. Clark?
Mr. RAY: Ramsey Clark.
Mr. FOREMAN: Oh.
Mr. Ray: And Mr. Hoover.
Mr. FOREMAN: Mr. Who?
Mr. RAY: J. Edgar Hoover. The only thing, I say I am not -- I agree to all these stipulations. I am not trying to change anything. I just want to add something onto it.
THE COURT: You don't agree with whose theories?
Mr. RAY: I meant Mr. Canale, Mr. Foreman, Mr. Ramsay Clark. I mean on the conspiracy thing I don't want to add something onto it which I haven't agreed to in the past.
In other words, despite the intense and disorienting pressure he was under, Ray still found the strength and presence of mind to only agree to being “legally” not actually guilty, and to insist that there had been a conspiracy.
Three days after the hearing, he wrote a letter to Judge Battle stating, “I wish to inform the Honorable Court that famous Houston attorney Percy Fourflusher is no longer representing me in any capacity...I intend to file for a post conviction hearing in the very near future...” A few days later, Ray wrote Judge Battle again: “I would respectfully request this court to treat this letter as a legal notice of an intent to ask for a reversal of the 99-year sentence petitioner received in this aforementioned court.” On March 31, 1969, Judge Battle died of a heart attack. He was found slumped across his desk with Ray's letter under his head. Under Tennessee law at the time, if a Judge died whilst considering an application for a new trial, the application was automatically granted. Battle was considering two such applications at the time he died. One was granted. Ray's was not.
James Earl Ray would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to get the trial Percy Foreman and the State of Tennessee denied him.