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Martin Luther King Killer’s Brother Fails In Attempt To Get Rifle Released

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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.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

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Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.