The King Assassination

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The Rev. Billy Kyles, the only person standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had started to walk away when he heard the shot.

"When I turned, I could see him lying on the balcony. One of his feet was sticking through the railing, and there was this huge hole in his face," Kyles told CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien as they stood together in front of Room 306 where the civil rights leader was gunned down 40 years ago this April.

In producing its two-hour documentary, "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination," CNN Presents turned to the people who were there that day and others personally involved in the movement to tell their first-hand stories of a tragedy that still resonates today.

Fireman George Loenneke had asked to take a look through a police surveillance peephole in his fire station across the street and saw King at the moment he was hit.

"It sounded like one-by-fours [boards], two of them -- just bam! -- went together," Loenneke said. "He come up off that grating there about a foot."

King's closest aide, Andrew Young, told O'Brien, "He probably never even heard the shot."

CNN sought out these critical witnesses and others with pained memories and personal knowledge to tell the story in their own words, rather than depend on official reconstructions of the murder case.


Among those interviewed: five policemen on the scene or on duty that day, three men in the firehouse, two of the garbage workers whose city-wide strike brought the civil rights leader to Memphis, the medical examiner who plotted the trajectory of the fatal bullet, and the former Ku Klux Klan lawyer who became James Earl Ray's first attorney.

Ray's younger brother, Jerry, shared his story of how he stayed in touch with James during the prison escapee's year on the run and was at his bedside when Ray died almost 30 years after his guilty plea in King's death.

The documentary draws on James Earl Ray's personal hand-written account at the time, which describes how he purchased his white Mustang and the .30-06 rifle left at the murder scene, as well as his capture overseas while trying to join up with mercenary forces in white-ruled areas of Africa.

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