Judge declines to rule in dispute over MLK Bible, Nobel

Image 1 of 11

ATLANTA (AP) — An ownership dispute over the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Peace Prize and traveling Bible is one step closer to trial.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney declined to rule Thursday in the dispute over the two items that has effectively pitted King's two sons against his daughter. That means the case will likely go to trial unless the parties reach a settlement.

King's estate, which is controlled by his two sons, in January 2014 asked a judge to order their sister to surrender the items. In a board of directors meeting that month Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King voted 2-1 against Bernice to sell the two artifacts to a private buyer.

Bernice opposed any sale and argued the items don't belong to the estate.

The three surviving King children are the sole shareholders and directors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc. In a vote in January 2014, Martin and Dexter voted 2-1 against Bernice to sell their father's 1964 peace prize medal and traveling Bible to an unnamed private buyer.

Both items were in Bernice's possession and lawyers for the estate filed a lawsuit just over a week later asking a judge to order Bernice to surrender both items. The Bible and Nobel medal have been in a safe deposit box, with the keys held by the court, since March 2014.

The case was set to go to trial in February 2015, but McBurney temporarily halted all action in the case after the parties asked for time to reach a settlement out of court.

Lawyers for the two sides told McBurney in May 2015 that that they were close to an agreement but not quite there. McBurney ordered them to use a mediator to resolve the dispute after a lawyer for Bernice asked the judge to order mediation and the estate's lawyer did not object.

McBurney said Thursday that he was willing to allow that delay of more than a year because of "the very important issues that are at stake here." He didn't set a trial date during the hearing but mentioned mid-August as a possibility.

"I think it's important to the parties and it's important to the public that this case be treated like we here in the Superior Court try to treat all our civil cases, which is to keep them moving on and not give anyone special treatment just because what's at stake might actually involve national and global legacies, which this one happens to do," he said.

Former President Jimmy Carter in October confirmed that he was working as a mediator to try to help the King heirs resolve their dispute. A string of legal disputes has divided the King heirs in recent years, but Bernice, Martin III and Dexter released a joint statement expressing optimism after a meeting with Carter in October.

Attorneys representing Bernice King and King's estate told McBurney on Thursday that they hadn't reached an agreement. An attorney for the estate, Nicole Jennings Wade, described the parties as "very optimistic" and Bernice's attorney, Eric Barnum, described remaining work as "fine-tuning."

Attorneys for the estate and Bernice declined further comment following the hearing.

Bernice spoke from the pulpit of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in February 2014 and denounced what she said was a plan by her brothers to sell the Bible and Nobel medal, which she said were among their father's most cherished possessions.

The estate's lawyers had cited a 1995 agreement among King's heirs to sign over their rights to many items they inherited from their father to the estate.

A lawyer for the estate said at a hearing shortly after the lawsuit was filed that money that would come in from the sale or lease of the Bible and Nobel medal was crucial to the estate's viability.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His widow, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006. Yolanda King, the Kings' eldest child, died in 2007. The three surviving children are the sole shareholders and directors of Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc.