ATLANTA – Martin Luther King Jr.'s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize should be placed in a safe deposit box controlled by the court pending the outcome of a legal dispute over who owns the items, a judge said Wednesday.
The dispute marks the latest in a string of legal battles between the siblings.
The civil rights icon's estate is controlled by his two sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King. Lawyers for the estate on Jan. 31 filed a complaint asking a judge to order that their sister, Bernice King, turn over the two prized items.
After about two and half hours of arguments from lawyers for both sides, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said he believes it is likely that the estate will prevail in the case. He said he would issue an order that both items be kept together in a safe deposit box in the name of the estate but that the keys would remain with the court until the ownership dispute before him is settled.
"I find that, at this point, that is a fair, equitable balance of the competing interests," McBurney said.
Lawyers for both sides said after the hearing that they felt the judge's temporary solution was fair.
William Hill, a lawyer for the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., said the bible and peace prize medal belong to the state under a 1995 agreement in which King's heirs signed over their rights to many items they inherited from him. Eric Barnum, a lawyer for Bernice, said his client doesn't believe those items are part of the estate and doesn't believe her father's most cherished possessions should be sold.
The three surviving King children are all board members of the estate, and they held a special board meeting in late January to vote on a proposed sale of the bible and peace prize, Hill said in court. They voted 2-1 in favor of the sale, with Bernice being the dissenting vote, Hill said.
"We have one director who disagrees with a properly taken vote of the corporation," Hill said, repeatedly saying that Bernice has no individual right of ownership to the items.
"You don't sell the most prized items of the estate. That's Bernice King's position," Barnum said.
Hill urged McBurney to issue an immediate order asking Bernice to turn over the items, saying the money that would come in from the sale or lease of the items was crucial to the estate's viability. People or entities interested in buying or leasing the items for public display had come forward but the offers won't last long, Hill said, though he didn't say who the interested parties are or why their offers had a short shelf life.
McBurney seemed skeptical that the estate, if proven to be the owner of the items, wouldn't be able to find a similar deal once the legal dispute is resolved.
"They are as culturally significant today as they were yesterday as they will be tomorrow," he said, ultimately refusing Hill's request that the items immediately be turned over.
King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. His wife, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006 and Yolanda King, the eldest child, died in 2007. That left the three remaining siblings as the sole shareholders and directors of their father's estate, but their relationship has deteriorated over legal battles.