R.I. State Crime Laboratory at URI site of tests 25 years ago on weapon suspected in slaying of Martin Luther King Jr.

State Crime Laboratory, URI capitalized on investigation, international exposure to become national leader in forensic science research, development of forensic science technology

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 19, 2022 – Eighteen shots rang out from a high-powered hunting rifle 25 years ago at the University of Rhode Island, disturbing the peace and beauty of springtime on its Kingston Campus.

The multiple discharges were part of an investigation into the weapon linked to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.

On May 14,1997, the weapon was test fired 18 times into a water tank at the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory located at URI’s Fogarty Hall by a team of experts led by URI criminalist Robert Hathaway, a firearms expert and former member of the Connecticut State Police.

The late Coretta Scott King warmly greets now-retired criminalist Robert Hathaway, the firearms examiner at the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory, in 2000 on the day when King was presented an honorary degree at that fall’s convocation. Nora Lewis photo taken of original picture by Michael Salerno.

Hathaway, who is now retired, was initially reluctant to become involved. But in August 1996 he agreed to work on the case, and in February 1997, testified in a Memphis courtroom, before Judge Joe Brown, that use of a scanning electron microscope, technology that was not used for firearm analysis in 1968, might provide important new information in the case. Following that testimony, the judge ordered in May that the weapon first be test fired in Kingston and the bullets analyzed there.

For three days in mid-May media from all over the country camped outside Fogarty Hall, still the crime laboratory’s home. Dozens of reporters from CNN, Fox, NBC, Tennessee media outlets, local and regional TV, radio and newspaper outlets covered the events. On May 13, laden with lapel microphones tucked inside his lab coat, Hathaway explained the process in the crime laboratory and then shot another weapon to demonstrate to the media how the test firings would be done the following day.

Then on May 14, the test firings of the 30.06-caliber weapon were conducted. On May 15, the crime lab examined the bullets and bullet fragments from the test firings with those obtained from King’s body.   

A plaque at the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at URI describes a replica of the rifle tested at the crime lab as part of an investigation into the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The replica was donated to the lab by Dateline NBC after it was used in a demonstration at the lab for the TV show. URI photo by Nora Lewis

Hathaway and his team then traveled to a firm in Pennsylvania, to conduct more extensive testing using a scanning electron microscope on May 21, 22 and 23. At the time, Hathaway said the analysis would provide one of three results: the bullet that killed King came from Ray’s rifle; the bullet did not come from Ray’s rifle, or that the examination was inconclusive.

In the end, the test results were inconclusive and did not affirm or alter history, but the investigation and high profile project was covered in 1,400 media outlets, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and in hundreds of TV and radio broadcasts, and served to fuel and further forensic science interdisciplinary research and innovation across the University.

Two years later, State Crime Lab Director Dennis Hilliard, Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor and world renowned explosives and energetic materials expert, and Everett Crisman, assistant professor of chemical engineering, founded and received funding to create the Forensic Science Partnership, an interdisciplinary partnership that would break through college and department boundaries.

In the 25 years since testing of the weapon believed to be used in King’s killing, the partnership has played a key role in URI developing U.S. Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence in explosives detection and mitigation and cyber security. It has also led to collaborations among Distinguished Chemical Engineering Professor Otto Gregory’s Sensors and Surface Technology Partnership, Hilliard’s crime laboratory and Oxley’s center of excellence in explosives. It also led the FBI to seek out Professor Martin Bide, a textile chemist, to develop a database of dyes for the federal agency. 

Up until his retirement, Hathaway said repeatedly that having the crime laboratory at URI was important for two reasons: It showed the public that while the crime laboratory served local and state police departments, it was independent of law enforcement, and that it could enhance its own capacity by tapping into the wide ranging research and scientific areas of inquiry of the University.  

In 2001, researchers from several areas, including Hilliard, Oxley and Gregory, conducted research on Major League baseballs and found that the contents of the balls had been the reason for the increased number of home runs being hit that year. The investigation showed that the materials used in the balls from the “Home Run Era” were more energetic than the materials used in previous years. Like the weapon testing, the results of this study gained national attention, including in magazines such as Discover and Scientific American.

That group of scientists proved in a concrete way that collaborative research could come up with big discoveries in sometimes more efficient ways.

Since taking over the directorship of the State Crime Laboratory in 1992, Hiiliard’s first objective was to hire a new firearms examiner.

“I was fortunate to have been able to bring Hathaway on board,” Hilliard said.  “This hiring was pivotal to the future of the laboratory, as it was a true partnership that formed the basis by which the laboratory was able to grow from three analysts and a secretary occupying 1,500 square feet of space in 1992 to 12 analysts occupying nearly 15,000 square feet of space in 2022.”