Did Famed Attorney / LBJ Friend Percy Foreman Blackmail Jimmy Carter?

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An Examination of how LBJ’s Friend Percy Foreman Guaranteed James Earl Ray’s Lifetime Sentence – While Earning a Lifetime “Keep Out of Jail” Card for Himself .

Dick Cavett: “A lot of people in the legal profession were astounded at how you got [James Earl Ray] to change the plea [from “not guilty” to “guilty”].”

Percy Foreman: “I didn’t get him to change the plea. [Laughing] I simply told him that I thought he would be executed if he didn’t.”

—The Dick Cavett Show, June 9, 1969

Percy’s Rise from Country Bumpkin to Rich, Flamboyant Attorney

Percy Foreman was born in a log cabin in Polk County Texas in 1902 and dropped out of high school as a teenager; he later took correspondence courses before studying law at the University of Texas, where he graduated in 1927.  He credited his mother for urging him to pursue his career as a lawyer, saying: “Were it not for her, I would have become a professional wrestler.” The following excerpts from an article in The New York Times published on the day after James Earl Ray named Foreman to replace his previous attorney provides a glimmer into how he carved out his later position in the top tier of Texas criminal attorneys: [1]

  • Foreman marshals an oratorical expertise nurtured as a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, where he shared platforms in small towns with Cossack dancers and Swiss bellringers.  “If you didn’t talk for two and a half hours, people thought they were cheated.” 
  • He often calls on his command of the Scriptures honed by the fact that he is a Baptist deacon. And in haranguing juries he is prone to draw on his reading — “anything from the Bible to Playboy,” an employee has said.

Lest the reader presume that his bible reading connotes a character guided by a high moral ethos and strict observance of legal precepts such as the niceties of due process, it should be understood that, in Percy’s case, such was not the case, as will be demonstrated below.

The “Official” Legend of Percy Foreman

At the top of the pyramid of the most famed Texas criminal lawyers stands the “legendary” Percy Foreman, who compiled a spectacular record of acquittals in seemingly unwinnable cases.  Supporting that legend is the (intrinsically and implicitly, “authorized”) 1969 Foreman biography by Michael Dorman, King of the Courtroom: Percy Foreman for the Defense.  

Even at the publication date of that book, nearly twenty years before Foreman’s death when he was still actively involved in legal work, the author stated that his subject had represented “more accused killers than any man in history—upwards of 1,000.” Yet, of that number, only 55 had gone to prison for their deeds and only one had been executed.  According to author Dorman, the credo fastidiously followed by Foreman was: [2]

  • [A defense attorney] should never allow the defendant to be tried. Try someone else—the husband, the lover, the police or, if the case has social implications, society generally. But never the defendant.

To illustrate Foreman’s technique, in one of his most famous cases before taking James Earl Ray’s, he defended a lady named Candy Mossler and her young paramour Melvin Powers – who was also her nephew – for the murder of Candy’s multi-millionaire husband, Jacques Mossler.  Percy began that trial by stating to the jury that, “If each one of the 39 knife wounds had been inflicted by a different person, there still would be three times that number of people left with real or imaginary justification to want the death of Jacques Mossler.”  He then noted some of Mossler’s alleged character traits that might have given unnamed other persons reason to want him dead: “Mossler was a ruthless businessman, a sexual deviate and a Jekyll and Hyde,” without producing one scrap of evidence to support any of those accusations. [3]  By painting the victim as a closeted homosexual, Foreman declared it was inevitable that his poor wife was forced to seek male companionship elsewhere.  And that created, in the minds of the jurors, a strawman suspect – an unidentified homosexual lover apparently jilted by Jacques – who had supposedly become so upset that he furiously stabbed Mossler 39 times. 

Further distancing his clients from the aura of guilt, he managed to convince the jury that, if anything, the elderly dead man had certainly deserved to die.  Falsely portraying Jacques as an irredeemable bully who, among other things, used to snap a bullwhip at his young wife’s feet to make her dance – it was merely a story that apparently originated as a hallucination within Foreman’s mind.

But he wanted to make that bold point stick, and endure for the entire trial, so he acquired a number of bullwhips, and arranged them on the defense table in front of the jury. Throughout the trial, they remained displayed in front of the jurors as reminders of the allegedly vicious husband. Foreman often picked them up as he went to great lengths to refresh the point during the course of the trial, coiling and uncoiling them individually, then shuffling through them as visual reminders of the original point, occasionally snapping one of them against the table to add emphasis to an important point. By the time the defense team rested and the judge gave them their instructions, all twelve of the jurors had become convinced that the kindly old man, who had always been of a heterosexual bent, succumbed to the lovely young lady many years before, but had, apparently, morphed into a wretched, vicious, closeted homosexual philanderer with no redeemable character traits. Thus, the poor young wife and her proxy-lover –- though acknowledging her incestual relationship with her even younger nephew, while pointing out they were not on trial for that — were the real victims of the tragic event.  Against a massive amount of evidence of their guilt, Foreman’s tactics prevailed when the jury found both Candy and Mel were not guilty of the murder of Jacques.[4] 

A Fellow Texas Attorney’s Scathing Rebuttal of Foreman’s Conflicted “Legacy”

Contradicting Percy’s purported legend, as written in the biography referenced above — that of a scrupulously dedicated and “honorable” lawyer — was another Texas attorney, who had also attained stature near the top of that “famed Texas lawyers” pyramid.  David Berg documented how Foreman’s actual record proved that he had attained his fame through avarice, guile and deceit; that he was a consummate liar, whose primary skills were related to the art of misdirection and subornation of perjury to achieve his stupendous record.  In his 2013 memoir Run, Brother, Run, Berg wrote that Foreman used a standard two-pronged approach in nearly every case, the first of which matched what author Dorman referenced, above:

  • [T]he first, common among defense lawyers, was to put the victim on trial, argue that lots of people had a motive to kill him, and besides, the son of a bitch had it coming.  The difference with Foreman was that he made most of it up—turned trials into a viciously inhumane assault on the dead man’s character.
  • Foreman’s second step was not just backup: it was bulletproof. In case character assassination alone might fail, he reached into his stable of “reserve witnesses,” as he called them: former clients and others who repaid his favors by swearing to have been with his defendant at the time of the crime.  It wasn’t just opposing prosecutors who knew that Foreman operated this way: his colleagues and even attentive laymen understood that he would do anything, no matter how dishonest, to win a trial.[5] (Italics added by author).

His use of the higher-risk “second step” option was reserved for cases in which the standard “try someone else” maneuver became impossible. But Percy did pull it out of his quiver In another infamous case, when he defended the hitman Charles Harrelson (father of famed actor Woody Harrelson) in a murder trial that took place immediately after destroying James Earl Ray’s chance of getting a fair trial in 1969.  Despite son Woody’s apparent belief in his father’s innocence of multiple murders (though the only thing missing from his business card, below, is “Have Gun, Will Travel”), Oliver Stone reportedly instructed Woody to act out a scene in Natural Born Killers, “more like your father” would have done it.[6]

Charles Harrelson’s Business Card[7]

Among Harrelson’s numerous murders was the contract murder of Alan Berg, the brother of David Berg, whose book referenced above was primarily about that case.  In that courtroom, just when things were looking very tenuous for Foreman and his murderous client, new witnesses were introduced to present “evidence” of Harrelson’s innocence that – had they referred it to the sheriff two years before, upon the defendant’s arrest, might have resulted in exculpatory proof of his innocence – presuming that it was found to be credible. The three “witnesses” included Charles’ father and two neighbors, all of whom might have been models for the back-country hicks featured in the 1970 book and 1972 movie Deliverance.  Together, they each individually averred that Charles Harrelson was 100 miles away, in Trinity, Texas at the very time the murder occurred.  They could make such an assertion because the notary public (a.k.a. “justice of the peace”) J. V. Price had noted the time on the “bill of sale” which he notarized, a very unusual practice, even though he neglected to enter the same document in his mandatory “Notary Log” as required by law.  He also wrote it out in pencil, a practice generally used to obfuscate the authenticity of a document since “… it couldn’t be dated by any scientific testing.”[8]  Through what was clearly the use of the most brazen deceit, the fabrication of the bogus bill of sale and the accompanying subornation of perjury by three witnesses – as well as the use of his standard tactic, blaming the murder on the victim himself – Percy Foreman had sprung the murderous Harrelson when the jury came back with the verdict of “not guilty.” [9]

In yet another one of Harrelson’s murder trials, for killing Sam Degelia, whose business partner needed him dead so he could collect his life insurance proceeds, Foreman again resorted to suborning perjury; he did that by coaching a woman – who had been indebted to him – to falsely testify that she had been with Harrelson in another town, far from the crime scene at the time of the murder.  That caused the jury to become deadlocked, with one juror holding out for an acquittal based upon that perjured testimony, forcing the judge to declare it a mistrial.  But when the new trial was held, the Texas Rangers – outraged by the brazen lies created by Foreman and his fake witness to free the murderer Harrelson – assembled evidence proving that the witness had lied about her whereabouts.  During the new trial, one of the officers sat in the gallery holding an arrest warrant in case she dared show up again to repeat her lies.  She chose to prolong her vacation in Aruba until after that trial, having gotten word of what awaited her back in Texas if she tried that again.  Despite Percy Foreman’s best effort to get this vicious serial killer, a “murder for hire” monster free, Harrelson was finally found guilty of the murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.[10] 

These were merely a sampling of Percy Foreman’s lengthy, scurrilous record of using unethical and criminal tactics to “win” at all costs.  In the interest of brevity, many other, equally appalling instances have been omitted.  But in at least one notable case, it could be argued that – even though Foreman did not defend Harrelson’s murder charge in the famous case of a federal judge – were it not for the freedom the unrepentant hitman enjoyed for too many years, thanks to Foreman’s efforts, Federal Judge John H. Wood might have himself enjoyed a longer life.  

Foreman’s role as a defense attorney generally, including his previous client Charles Harrelson, was not the problem: It was how he built a supposedly “stellar reputation” as a highly successful and famed attorney working to keep murderers free through his use of the most brazen and venal acts of cunning, fraud and deceit – within a system of “justice” supposedly free of such avarice, as depicted by the blindfold on its “Lady Justice” symbol — to “win” at all costs. It was his chronic reckless and wanton disregard of ethical behavior that vicariously contributed to the murder of Judge Wood, and thus should be counted among Foreman’s body count.[11]  

How LBJ’s Friend Percy Foreman Sank James Earl Ray’s Chance for a Fair Trial

UPDATE: Six weeks after my book was published, John Curington published his memoirs, H. L. Hunt, Motive and Opportunity, about his career working as H. L. Hunt’s “right-hand man.” Within that book, he explains how Percy Foreman wound up in the Shelby County Jail at the precise moment that Ray decided to fire Arthur Hanes. He stated that H. L. Hunt gave him a briefcase loaded with $125,000 in cash ($904,838 in today’s value) and told him to visit Foreman at his office and how to make the presentation: “[I] laid it on the desk in front of him. ‘I have one hundred and twenty-five thousand reasons why James Earl Ray should plead guilty to killing Martin Luther King,’ I said. Foreman looked at me and said, ‘Well, just leave them with me, and I’ll take a look at them.’ I walked out of the room, not having been there more than a minute or two. I left the $125,000 . . . and sure enough, James Earl Ray entered a guilty plea.” (Kindle Part IV, Loc. 1864).

Curington then lamented on what Hunt’s possible motive might have been: “Why was it so important for Mr. Hunt to have a confession from Ray? . . . That phone conversation that I was privy to between Mr. Hunt and Percy Foreman was very short and to the point, and the promise of money was just a veiled, casual thing. My own conversation with Foreman wasn’t much more. Surely some prior groundwork had been done, and I have to wonder if it hadn’t been done between J. Edgar Hoover, Mr. Hunt, and Percy Foreman. Unfortunately, the answers to all those things and many other questions died with Mr. Hunt.” (Kindle, Part IV, Loc. 1881)

All of this explains why Foreman was so intent on forcing Ray to plead guilty from the moment he became Ray’s lawyer, always reminding him about Judge Battle’s standing injunction against Ray ever making another attorney change. Curington pointedly noted that Hunt had “no dog in that hunt”. The absence of a plausible motive on his part can only be explained by the obvious presence of a very clear and specific motive on the parts of Johnson and Hoover.

Percy Foreman did not need to follow his usual practices in his “defense” of James Earl Ray, because, in that case, as it has now become clear, his objective was never to serve Ray’s interests in getting a fair trial.  It was about ensuring Lyndon B. Johnson’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s interests – that Ray would never receive a trial at all, specifically one that had any element of fairness.  His real mission was to ensure that Ray would spend the rest of his life in prison, and his success in achieving that goal was proven when James Earl Ray died, on April 23, 1998, after having spent his last thirty years in prison.[12]

In 1968, four of the biggest “brand” name trial lawyers in the U.S. were (in no particular order) Percy Foreman of Houston; Melvin Belli of San Francisco; F. Lee Bailey of Boston and Edward Bennett Williams of Washington D.C.  It was no surprise that all of these names, and a few others, were being discussed by Ray’s family as possibilities to replace Arthur Hanes, whose position as Ray’s attorney had been compromised due to the intrinsic conflict of interest created with his “other client,” the fiction-writer William Bradford Huie, to whom Hanes shared the information to be used in Ray’s defense.  After four months in that arrangement, James had already begun thinking that the Hanes-Huie team was not functioning in his best interest.  His final decision to terminate his contracts with both of them came after he read the first of William Bradford Huie’s magazine articles in Look magazine, dated November 12, 1968 but available on newsstands 3-4 days before that date.  James had read a copy by November 9th and was very upset that Huie had revealed far more information – much of it highly derogatory and prejudicial of James and his family – than he should have.

The intense monitoring of Ray during the five months of his isolation at that point, in a specially-built cell designed by “the Feds,” had finally paid off on that day, when, through the 24/7 film and audio tapes that captured everything he said, they immediately knew of Ray’s decision as soon as he made it.  Foreman’s subsequent actions proved, not only that he was brought into the case directly as a result of Ray’s decision to terminate Hanes, but the fact that he never had any intent to “defend” Ray in any legitimate sense.

The events leading to Ray’s dumping of Arthur Hanes Sr. (and his son, Arthur Jr.) and replacing them with Percy Foreman – two days before the trial was to begin on Tuesday, November 12, 1968 can be summarized thusly:

The Serial Betrayals of Percy Foreman to his “Client” James Earl Ray

  • As early as September 3, 1968 James began having concerns about Huie’s motives when he received a letter from him in which he pressed James to confess, in a letter delivered by attorney Hanes.  And on September 12th, Huie wrote a story for the Memphis Commercial Appeal that was unflattering to James, who then complained to judge Preston Battle about what he realized was a conflict of interest.  In the middle of October, “James wrote Huie that he wanted to get out from under the contracts he had signed.”  He also expressed concern that since Arthur Hanes wasn’t licensed in Tennessee, he would need another lawyer who was.[13]
  • The Hanes team continued their research and planning throughout this period; after strategizing their trial plan, they were ready on Thursday, November 7th for the courtroom. The following day, Friday the 8th, the younger Hanes spent the day with Ray in his cell preparing him for the week ahead. Hanes left and the next day drove to Birmingham to pick up his dad and clothes they had obtained for Ray to wear during the trial, and then headed back to Tennessee.
  • In the meantime, Ray had received the Look magazine article and read it on Saturday, November 9th, finally realizing that Huie’s negative depiction of him and his family was anything but supportive of himself, and them, leading to his decision to immediately terminate both Hanes and Huie.
  • When Hanes Sr. and Jr. got to the jail that Sunday, November 10th, there was a note waiting for them. It said: “Thank you for all you’ve done, but I’ve decided to change lawyers.” [14]
  • In what was an incredibly “timely” coincidence, earlier that same day, Sunday November 10th, as James would later state, “Foreman showed up at the Shelby County Jail . . . He wasn’t listed in the jail record as representing me. I never requested to see him. Yet the sheriff promptly ushered him into my presence.” [15]  
  • The mystery of how Foreman knew when to strike was related to how Ray described his specially-built jail cell as an environment “straight out of a police state handbook.” Two visible CCTV cameras monitored his movements in the cell and the surrounding cellblock, and live feeds were sent to two televisions within the cell block to allow guards to watch his every move and record everything he and his attorneys might say.
  • Foreman would later claim that he came to Memphis as a result of having received a letter from James requesting his visit (“It came to my office about the 8th—7th or 8th—of November),[16] a point that James vehemently denied.
  • And there was no record in the jail’s mail log for “outgoing letters” of any such letter being mailed to Foreman.[17] 
  • Foreman had stated that James’ brothers, Jerry and John, had contacted him.  While they did acknowledge that they met him at the airport, it remains unclear as to who contacted whom about arranging that meeting; regardless, it’s a moot point, given that they would not have had the authority to make any commitments on behalf of James, including negotiating with Foreman to become his designated attorney.  Their role would have been nothing more than being James’ “errand boys” regardless.
  • Ten years later, upon questioning by the HSCA counsel about the whereabouts of that letter, Foreman claimed that it was among the files he had sent to his own lawyer, John Hooker, in Nashville though Mr. Hooker was then dead, and his firm supposedly claimed that they did not have that set of files in the office.[18]  The HSCA staff did not follow up on this, according to the research of John Avery Emison, who discovered that, in 1970, the Davidson County Tennessee District Attorney’s office conducted a routine criminal investigation of Hooker Sr. and his legal representation of Foreman; the man who had conducted that examination was never consulted regarding his findings.[19]
  • Unfortunately for Ray, he wound up in a far worse position. Hanes was at least trying to put on a defense, unlike the attorney Ray was coerced to replace him with, LBJ’s Houston friend, Percy Foreman.[20] But behind Ray’s back, Foreman continued that same agreement with Huie for his own profit-making schemes.
  • Knowing that James was upset about Huie’s first magazine article, Percy had assured him that there would be no such contracts with him; that the existing contracts “weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.” [21]  According to James, Foreman then stated that “If you dismiss Arthur Hanes and retain me, there will be no literary contracts entered into until after trial.”  He said that he would finance his own expenses, then after the trial, arrange for literary contracts, which would pay him $150,000 for his services.[22] Yet within ten weeks, Foreman had secretly entered into a new contract with Huie in which Ray was excluded completely and provided himself 60% of the book royalties (up from the 40% previously given to Hanes).
  • Foreman had repeatedly told Ray – when he was pressuring him to fire Hanes and hire himself – that the state’s case was so flimsy it would be easy to win. He said, “All James will have to say is that somebody stole his car and they used it, and that they stole a suitcase out of the car and threw it on the street. There’s no evidence.”[23]  But all of that soon changed after-the-fact: Now it became an air-tight case that could not be won.  He told Ray that if the case were lost, that there would be no way to avoid him getting the death penalty.  Foreman stated that the court clerk was planning to rig the jury by selecting only blacks, those known to be very angry and bent on revenge, or business people who wanted their jury service to be over as soon as possible.[24]
  • Foreman continued to increase the pressure as the trial date drew nearer. In the meantime, he did nothing to prepare for an actual trial, so set was he on pushing Ray into accepting a guilty plea as the only possible way to avoid getting the death penalty when he would inevitably be found guilty by a jury. He promised Ray that he could subsequently get the plea bargain cancelled on appeal and Ray wouldn’t lose the promised “no death penalty” in the process of getting a new trial.
  • All during this “research period,” Foreman variously claimed to have spent “30 – 40 – 50 -70” hours with Ray at the jail preparing his case, but the logs maintained by the prison- indicated only 12 hours had been spent in consultation with Ray during that period; he blamed the discrepancy on whomever maintained and tabulated the jailhouse records.[25]
  • Foreman did meet briefly with the Haneses and claimed to have reviewed their entire file on Ray, consisting of thousands of pages of documents, photographs, transcripts of interviews, and trial briefs.  But, according to Arthur Hanes Jr., after Percy had spent about ten minutes rifling through the file before going out to dinner with the Haneses, said, “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.”  Hanes Sr. said, “We offered him everything we had. He took nothing with him. My judgement is that he never even considered trying the case. Far as I can ascertain he never prepared and never investigated. He never considered giving James Earl Ray a trial.”[26]
  • Researcher Harold Weisberg looked closely at what Foreman had done to prepare for the trial and stated: “What [Foreman] contrived, a very daring and almost impossible thing, did not require him to prepare the case, to do any work. If he could not pull it off, he need only have gone back into court and told the judge he could not proceed, that he and his client could not agree on tactics and strategy.”[27] 
  • Weisberg also explained the perfunctory nature of the hearing: “At no point did [Ray] admit the killing. At no point was he ever asked!” Weisberg also stated that the prosecutor, Phil Canale, even admitted that there was no proof of a conspiracy, despite the fact that Ray’s own lawyer, Percy Foreman, had done that. Foreman “uttered no single word on behalf of his client.” Moreover, he stated that Foreman’s defense was “one of the most unusual ‘defenses’ and jury-examinations in legal history,” and that “It was not the prosecution who sought to guarantee Ray’s lifetime incarceration but his defender, the man who was ‘sure’ the judge ‘would excuse’ any juror unwilling to pledge, in advance of presentation or consideration of any evidence whatsoever, first, to find the accused guilty and, next, to agree to a life-plus sentence.”
  • Knowing that he could easily deny anything that James might say, and despite what all the Rays’ would describe as his brutal pressure on James to take the plea deal as a means to avoid the death penalty – despite the fact that the Tennessee courts were known to be in a deadlock about capital punishment generally and none had used it since 1960, or would again, until 2000[28]  – he had the temerity to tell the HSCA a decade later: “I didn’t make a recommendation to Mr. Ray. I have never recommended to any client, sir, that they accept any penalty . . . James Earl Ray’s plea of guilty originated with James Earl Ray. [He] was certain that he would not do more than 2 years on any sentence he received, whether life or 99 years. He said so.”[29]
  • The Huntsville Times published an article on March 8, 1969, which stated that “a source close to the case [known to be Foreman himself] said the guilty plea would be ‘the only way Ray can escape the death sentence.’” That “unnamed source” explained further that a jury would be empaneled and each juror would be asked if he or she could abide by the court’s recommendations, implicitly meaning only those who would cooperate in this sham would be selected for the jury. Further, the source said, the court “would then accept a plea of guilty and recommend the sentence of 99 years . . . the jury would [then] be allowed to leave the courtroom to confirm the sentence.”[30]
  • Under that preset scenario, the result would be guaranteed in advance, and the procedures outlined by Ray’s own counsel—absolute assurance of prison for the rest of his client’s life, with no risk of him ever having a fair trial—would ensure that the real plotters would never be caught and that the patsy would rot in jail until the day he died.
  • Within Foreman’s article in Look magazine April 15, 1969, he described his own duplicitousness:  He acknowledged that he had laid out his premise from the start: that his client was guilty, beyond any doubt, and that his sole objective was “. . . not to spring him, but to try to save his life. I then, over several weeks, spent 40 hours in conversation with him, endeavoring to bring him to believe that I knew more about the law than he did, after which I saved his life in the only way I thought it could be saved. I consider that no mean achievement.”
  • Foreman even reiterated in the Look article that, if had Ray not taken the guilty plea, it would have been his “duty” to take the stand against his own client, in violation of the sacred attorney-client relationship, and testify against Ray.

Percy Foreman’s Lifetime of Deceit – And How He Managed to Avoid His Own Prison Term

Foreman’s choice of the clientele to whom he offered his services throughout his career, and the fraudulent methods he often used in doing that, brought with it a high risk of exposure and the potential of a consequent end to that career.  In one extraordinary 1970s case, Percy Foreman became involved as a central player in a case of massive fraud involving a number of other famed Texas lawyers, millionaires and security specialists. 

One of the reasons it was “extraordinary” was about how it received a flourish of media coverage on the front end, but that soon became dampened, and by time it was adjudicated it had practically become a secret (and how it was “resolved” is still unknown to almost everyone, except to readers of this essay). 

The following excerpts, from an article titled “H.L. Hunt’s Long Goodbye” in the March 1975 edition of Texas Monthly, explain the basics and how it all started with a traffic stop:[31]

“The intrigue surfaced routinely enough four years previous [1971], when a suburban Dallas policeman stopped Jon Joseph Kelly for running a stop sign. Kelly, a 25-year-old Houston man, identified himself as a private detective. The patrolman noticed a tape recorder in Kelly’s back seat. “When I asked him if he was working on a divorce case,” the policeman later recalled, “he stepped on the gas and took off. If he hadn’t panicked, I wouldn’t have hauled him in and none of this would have come out.”

“The FBI discovered that Kelly and a sidekick, Patrick McCann, had placed wiretaps in the homes of four Hunt Oil executives, among them Paul Rothermel, H. L. Hunt’s chief security man. Rothermel, a former FBI man and an attorney, claimed that in 1969 he had persuaded Hunt to change his will to the greater benefit of the second Mrs. Hunt and her children. Since then, odd things had been happening; and Rothermel believed that the older Hunt sons were behind it. Kelly and McCann, however, remained mute—until they got three years in prison. Then they fingered two of the older Hunt sons, Nelson Bunker and W. Herbert Hunt, as the plotters and paymasters.

“Nelson and Herbert were indicted on wiretapping charges, but only after a curiously long-time lag. They have since admitted that they ordered “legal investigations” of Rothermel and the other executives, but not wiretaps. They contend their motive was not to spy on their father’s will-making, but to trace millions of dollars which were allegedly siphoned off into dummy companies. They backed up their charges with a suit against Rothermel and two other company officials. Since then Kelly has sued Nelson and W. Herbert Hunt, complaining they ruined his reputation and career.

The following article from a March, 1975 issue of Parade magazine nicely summarizes the many facets of this complicated case. It all started when Paul Rothermel suggested to H. L. Hunt that he write the children of his first family out of his will and revise it such that all of his wealth be bequeathed to his children from his “second family.” His two elder sons, Herbert and Bunker, hired wiretappers to bug their father’s offices to determine what was afoot, leading to their arrests. The prediction in the last paragraph never came about. The case would be quietly settled out of court, thanks to the high level payoffs and corrupted federal judges, evidently going all the way to U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, a point to be described later in this article.

That 1972 civil lawsuit against the Hunt brothers also named Percy Foreman and several others who had become involved; that lawsuit would evolve, in 1973, into a criminal case which potentially threatened Foreman’s career, and his contrived reputation as well.  But, as we will shortly see — as proven by the result — Foreman knew that his experience as the attorney who “threw the case” against James Earl Ray, thus ensuring that he would rot in prison, gave him an ace up his sleeve.

Actually, something much more valuable than that: A free “Get out of Jail” pass.

The original charging document stated that in mid-December 1971, Foreman had entered into a contract with the plaintiff, Jon Joseph Kelly, but, unbeknownst to Kelly, that was part of a fraud that Foreman had been planning to conduct against him.  The gist of the lawsuit, asserting that Foreman was at the very center of a conspiracy, stated that he “surreptitiously conspired in Houston, Texas to disregard his ethical and lawful duty to the Plaintiff and to the Court and to sell his allegiance for cash dollars to be paid in a clandestine manner” and is further described in this excerpt of the charging document:[32]

“The defendants conspired together and concocted a scheme to cover up certain criminal activities of NELSON BUNKER HUNT and W. HERBERT HUNT  by paying PERCY FOREMAN vast sums of money [$100,000 total paid in early 1972],  to betray Jon Joseph Kelly, a client he was then representing, and by guile, treachery, artifice and deceit, as well as intimidation and threat of force, to thereby dupe, use and frighten the Plaintiff and prevent hm from giving testimony regarding the criminal activities of NELSON BUNKER HUNT and W. HERBERT HUNT.  It was agreed by the conspirators that they would pay FOREMAN who would then pretend to defend the Plaintiff, when in truth and in fact, and unbeknownst to Plaintiff, FOREMAN was really working exclusively for the conspirators and against the best interests of the Plaintiff . . .”

The lawsuit asked for actual, exemplary and punitive damages “in the sum of at least ONE HUNDRED MILLION AND NO/100 ($100,000,000.00) DOLLARS. 

Foreman was cast in that document as the central key conspirator – one could call him the “architect of the cover-up” who designed it, without exaggeration – representing the other defendants, who, “. . . by word and deed [did] deter Plaintiff by misrepresentation, threats of physical harm, threats of economic ruin, intimidation of will, and other furtive methods from becoming a witness in or attending in a Court of the United States or testifying to a matter pending therein freely, fully and truthfully.” 

From Civil Suit to Criminal Indictment

That civil lawsuit, filed in 1972, led to a criminal indictment by a federal grand jury in July, 1975, naming the aforementioned Jon Joseph Kelly as a victim and the following persons were charged with multiple counts of obstruction of justice:  Ralph Shank (a Dallas attorney), Charles Tessmer (a Dallas attorney), B. H. Timmins, Jr. (a Dallas attorney), Edward J. Hudson, (a Houston millionaire), Percy Foreman (a Houston attorney), Nelson Bunker Hunt and W. Herbert Hunt, (sons of the late H.L. Hunt, all millionaires of Dallas, Texas). [33]

In an article published in The New York Times July 22, 1975, more insights are revealed; the description included in these excerpts further explains the background of the criminal charges:[34]

“All seven men were alleged to have conspired to obstruct the investigation of the wiretapping case and the Hunt indictments. The investigation subsequently resulted in the indictment of the Hunt brothers for violations of Federal wiretapping laws. The indictment said the group attempted to influence potential witnesses in the earlier case through bribes and veiled threats of physical harm and death.

“The Hunts were named in all but two of the counts, while Mr. Foreman was named in three of the counts. The wiretapping case stems from the 1970 arrests of two Houston men, Jon Kelly and Patrick McCann, in Richardson, a Dallas suburb, and seizure of wiretapping equipment from their car.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department entered the investigation and Mr. Kelly and Mr. McCann, along with a third man, W. J. Everett, were indicted for wiretap violations. Mr. Kelly and Mr. McCann were tried and found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison in 1972 for wiretapping the home phones of three Hunt employees. Mr. Everett pleaded nolo contender and was placed on probation. The Hunts were indicted last summer for their part in the wiretap case, and their trial is slated for September in Lubbock, Tex., where it was moved on a Change of ‘venue.

“The indictments handed up today allege that the Hunts promised Mr. Kelly, Mr. McCann and Mr. Everett amounts ranging from $800 to $1,250 per Month while in prison if they did not testify before a grand jury concerning the Hunts involvement in the wiretapping case.”

One year later, in July 1976, a motion to separate Percy Foreman from that case and change the venue for his case from the Northern District of Texas to the Southern District (Houston) was granted by Halbert O. Woodward, the District Judge of the Northern District.[35]  The following restriction – rather odd, considering the public interest in such a development – was added, to ensure that this maneuver would be kept out of the public purview:

“This document contains neither recommendations nor conclusions of the FBI. It is the property of the FBI and is loaned to your agency; it and its contents are not to be distributed outside your agency.” (Emphasis added – Ed.)

The fact that only Percy Foreman’s case was cut and moved from Dallas to Houston, when other defendants, also from Houston, were not, suggests that there were other reasons behind the move.  A search of the internet for newspaper articles at that point in time on this event yielded no results, validating the effectiveness of the secrecy order. 

Percy Foreman Receives His “Get Out of Jail” Card

As the two separated criminal cases slowly proceeded, the previous widespread media coverage disappeared completely, even though the warning previously used (above) was not necessarily printed on later documents, that only meant that the secrecy order had become very well established.  Led by the legal and PR team of the Hunt brothers, mounting political pressure was brought to bear in Washington to keep their names out of the press, and of course that meant they would also need to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid a trial.  Although a search of various newspaper archives yields no significant articles, it has been variously reported that, just before the trial for the six other defendants was scheduled to begin, Senator James O. Eastland (D-MS) had been employed to quietly negotiate settlements with the Justice Department, allowing the defendants to plead no contest to a lesser charge and pay a nominal fine.

Less than a year later, on June 6, 1977, the same federal judge as before, Halbert O. Woodward, referencing an order from the U.S. Attorney General (Griffin Bell, appointed by Jimmy Carter), dismissed without explanation the indictment against Percy Foreman:[36]

(The pdf copies of the two referenced documents appear below. To enlarge the images, “right-click” over the document and then select “Open Image in New Tab”. Go to the new tab and hover the cursor over the image, the cursor should turn into a “+” sign which will enlarge the image when you click it over document).

The memoranda kept from the media so as to not embarrass Percy Foreman, the Attorney General Griffin Bell, President Jimmy Carter, the Hunt brothers or the other prominent defendants in the lawsuit that portended a very major scandal — had it not been suppressed — that would have rocked the nation’s
constitutional foundation and exposed the real story of Martin Luther King’s murder.


The fact that Percy Foreman had gotten off “scott-free” was a significant factor in compromising the prosecution’s ability to mount a strong case for the other defendants, further ensuring that all of it would be handled without the normal level of media attention that might be expected to a case that had originally burst upon the scene with the attention of the national press, as previously noted. 

Both Cases Disappear:  What the Hell Happened?

Federal criminal cases generally wind their way to a specific outcome: a trial or a pre-trial settlement.  The unusual intervention of the highest level of the Executive Department, only five months into the Carter administration, to dismiss the single-most key conspirator who designed the cover-up, without a whimper from either side, must be considered most unusual.

It is reasonable to conclude that only the most powerful authority in Washington in 1977, the President himself, could have intervened to throw the case against Percy Foreman out.  The fact that the order to summarily dismiss the charges came directly from his Attorney General Griffin Bell – without even a hint of explanation of its rationale – means, axiomatically, that it had to have President Carter’s backing, at the very least with his acquiescence, but nearly axiomatically, his personal order.  

All of which evokes the image of “the 800 pound elephant in the room” and raises the rhetorical question of: “What was the rationale?”

The only realistic answer to that question is that it had to be something so potentially catastrophic to the continuance of the government – another of the “constitutional crises” that had been so common during LBJ’s presidency – that there was no other option. The only realistic choices he had were to:

  1. Deny Foreman’s request at the risk of him “going public” with his secrets about what really went on “behind the scenes” to deny Ray a fair trial in order to assure that he would spend the rest of his life in prison, as President Johnson had demanded;
  2. Capitulate to Foreman’s request and announce the decision publicly, spelling out the “national security” rationale behind it and hope that the press (more importantly the public) would accept it; or,
  3. Give Foreman the dismissal he requested, but do it secretly, presuming that such a request would remain classified forever (which of course it did not, since, decades later, someone routinely declassified it, evidently not understanding why it was once such political dynamite).

If the President had publicly admitted the reason, could the country survive, with much of the population –- especially blacks, still recovering from Martin Luther King’s murder and the then-new revelations about the FBI’s harassment of King amid new suspicions of Hoover’s involvement in it — already primed for revolt?  There is one reasonable explanation that is not only plausible, but may be the only one possible, given what we know now. 

Consider this possible scenario: 

That Percy Foreman decided to blackmail President Carter for the favor he did for his friend President Johnson:  In exchange for an order to dismiss the charges against him he would keep his lips sealed forever about the real story behind his defense of James Earl Ray:

  • how he had been called by LBJ, who assured him that if he showed up at the Shelby County Jail on November 10, 1968, he would be ushered into James Earl Ray’s cell;
  • that Ray just happened to be at the point where he had just decided to change attorneys, something known to his jailers — through their 24/7 monitoring of his conversations, thus the police, the FBI and the POTUS;
  • that Percy, using his best silver-tongue talents, would convince his prey that he would uniquely fill Ray’s needs for the best defense lawyer in the country;
  • that he would over-power the hapless convict by delivering his customary sales job (“I’ve defended over 1,000 murderers and only 1 got the electric chair.”)
  • And that, of course his service to his country would earn him his usual princely fees. 

This construct would also explain the reason for the first step taken by Judge Woodward a year earlier — to separate Foreman from the rest of the defendants — was so that he could be given “special” treatment without involving the others.

And, indubitably not verbalized at that point, but the brilliant lawyer had probably already figured out on his own, that there was also a tacit, nearly automatic advantage to him, in case he ever needed it: A permanent “Get out of jail” card that he could use whenever he wished. All he needed to do was ask — whomever was the President at the time.


[1] “Flamboyant Advocate,” The New York Times, November 12, 1968, p. 36

[2] Dorman, Michael, King of the Courtroom: Percy Foreman for the Defense, New York: Delacorte Press, 1969, pp. xi-xii

[3] Ibid., p. 173

[4] Ibid., pp. 173-175; 207-208; (also see: https://www.nickdavies.net/1988/09/05/death-of-a-legal-legend/)

[5] Ibid. pp. 150-151

[6] Berg, David, Run, Brother, Run, New York: Scribner, 2013, p. 217

[7] Ibid., p. 216

[8] Ibid. p. 189

[9] Ibid. pp. 157-195

[10] Ibid., pp. 202-203

[11] For more on the story of Judge Wood’s murder, and video clips of Charles Harrelson’ attempt at his own play-acting – bemoaning his having been blamed for the murder, see “FBI: The Untold Stories – The Murder of Judge John Wood 3” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf_brDIImqU

[12] Emison, The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-up – The Railroading of James Earl Ray, Pelican Publishing, 2014. pp. 185-187

[13] Ray, John L. and Lyndon Barsten, Truth at Last, The Lyons Press, 2008, p. 126

[14] See: https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2018/04/former_james_earl_ray_attorney.html

[15] Ray, James Earl, Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.? The True Story by the Alleged Assassin, National Press Boks, 1991

[16] HSCA MLK Report, Vol. V, p. 76

[17] Op. Cit. Ray, John L. p. 128

[18] Ibid.

[19] Op. Cit., Emison, p. 262

[20] Ibid. pp. 185-187; 200.

[21] Op. Cit., Ray, John L. and Lyndon Barsten. pp. 127-128

[22] Op. Cit., Ray, James Earl, pp. 118-119

[23] Op. Cit., Ray, John L. and Lyndon Barsten. P. 129

[24] Ibid.  pp. 127–128

[25] HSCA MLK Report, Vol. V, p.301.

[26] Op. Cit., Ray, James Earl,   pp. 120–121

[27] Weisberg, Frame-Up, pp. 73–74.

[28] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Tennessee.

[29] HSCA MLK Report, Vol. V, p.301

[30] See https://www.archives.gov/files/research/jfk/releases/docid-32397527.pdf, p. 181 (Ref. “Ray Hearing Set; Guilty Plea Hinted,” Washington Post, March 8, 1969, p. A-1).

[31] See: https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/h-l-hunts-long-goodbye/

[32] See: Harold Weisberg collection – Hood College Library, Frederick Md: Percy Foreman folio, Item #11 http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/F%20Disk/Foreman%20Percy/Item%2011.pdf

[33] See: Harold Weisberg collection – Hood College Library, Frederick Md: Percy Foreman folio, Item #10 http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/F%20Disk/Foreman%20Percy/Item%2010.pdf

[34] The New York Times July 22, 1975 titled “2 Hunts Indicted with 5 in Dallas”p.21

[35] See: Harold Weisberg collection – Hood College Library, Frederick Md: Percy Foreman folio, Item #10 http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/F%20Disk/Foreman%20Percy/Item%2009.pdf

Woodward, together with his friend and colleague federal judge Harold Barefoot Sanders, was known to be one of Lyndon Johnson’s life-long sycophants in the federal judiciary in the state of Texas.  The actions of both of these judges, in their 1984 efforts to force U.S. Marshal Clint Peoples to drop his investigation of the murder of Henry Marshall in 1961 – which had been ridiculously classified as a “suicide,” thus preventing the pursuit of the murderer [according to Billie Sol Estes, Johnson’s partner in criminal business dealings, was LBJ’s secret aide / hitman Mac Wallace] – twenty-three [23] years later in 1984 was closely examined in my previous book, LBJ: From Mastermind to The Colossus [pp. 19-35].

[36] See: Harold Weisberg collection – Hood College Library, Frederick Md: Percy Foreman folio, Item #25 http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/F%20Disk/Foreman%20Percy/Item%2025.pdf

9 thoughts on “Did Famed Attorney / LBJ Friend Percy Foreman Blackmail Jimmy Carter?

  1. Phil,

    Thanks for your continuing efforts in keeping the truth alive about the MLK murder, in addition to the JFK hit, two of our nation’s most devoutly protected sacred cows. .

    Percy Foreman, LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover and the rest who contributed to this monstrous conspiracy are no doubt occupying the lowest, deepest circle of hell, reserved for those who betray their country in such insidious ways.

    I have no doubt that your courage in maintaining the flame of truth has been noted by the Authority with final jurisdiction, and that you will be rewarded appropriately, even beyond the veil.

    God Bless you and your family.

    Mike Campbell
    Jacksonville, Fla.


    1. Mike, thanks for your kind words and blessing! Coming from someone with your own impressive background and accomplishments, and understanding of the “uphill nature” of our labors makes it very special.

      With much appreciation,


  2. John Currington who was a longtime right hand man for HL Hunt has stated he personally gave $125,000 to Percy Foreman ordered by Hunt to get James Earl Ray to plead guilty.


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