Former sheriff recalls James Earl Ray's incarceration


In 1968 the eyes of the world focused on Memphis after habitual criminal James Earl Ray was apprehended in London and was flown back to be charged with the murder of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

After 45 years, an historic video record of law enforcement's massive security effort to protect Ray has emerged through the release of previously undiscovered reels of tape shot by the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

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Then Sheriff and later former County Mayor Bill Morris reflected on the choreographed operation of state local and federal law enforcement agencies working together to insure Ray's protection. Morris noted after Ray was read his rights, was given a medical examination and a change of clothes, the ride from the plane to jail was filled with planned precautions of almost a military nature. Methods guaranteed to thwart curious onlookers or a rabid media from trying to get a glimpse of Ray.

"We loaded him off the plane into what we called 'Thompson Tank,' which was an armored car," recalls Morris. "We arranged to have a school bus to block the view on one side and major spotlight, floodlights thrown out to the area so that all the media was blinded basically. So nobody could see."

Ray's booking at the jail was the continuation of the videotaping done for eight months of incarceration in the Shelby County jail. The strip searching of Ray in a fortified and isolated area of the jail, prepared just for his arrival, was just the start of a daily documented process that encompassed not only Ray, but all who had reason to come in contact with him.

"Every day that James Earl Ray was in our custody, we can tell you how many aspirin he took, every meal that he ate, what he ate, everything he read," says Morris. "Everybody who went on that floor where James Earl Ray was, all the months that he was there, had to go through to be stripped, stripped searched and put into a different uniform to go into the jail cell area where Ray was."

But, all the videotaping wasn't just some voyeuristic adventure. It was a necessity for local law enforcement determined not to make the mistakes that horrendously unfolded during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Their efforts proved to be a model in tactical efficiency.

"If you want to really make certain that the legal process is unquestionable and that the security of the accused is in place, you can look at the Memphis and Shelby County case of James Earl Ray in 1968," Morris said.

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