ATLANTA -- The legal battle between the children of Dr. Martin Luther King over two of their father's most prized possessions took an unexpected turn Wednesday when a judge ordered Bernice King to relinquish the items, yet did not give them outright to her brothers.
In an emergency hearing, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ordered Bernice King to hand over King's Bible and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, to be kept temporarily in a safe deposit box under the name of the King estate. The judge will hold the key until the matter between the siblings is settled.
"I find that, at this point, that is a fair, equitable balance of the competing interests," McBurney said.
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 their sister to turn over the two prized items. Bernice King said her older brothers want to sell the items and she does not agree with that decision.
After about two and half hours of arguments from lawyers for both sides, McBurney said he believes it is likely that the estate will prevail in the case.
William Hill, a lawyer for the two brothers, told the judge Wednesday that there is a "time sensitive opportunity" to sell and lease the property. He said that the funds are necessary to sustain the King estate. Hill did not specify who would receive the medal and the Bible. But he noted that it took a decade to sell MLK papers after earlier opportunities were missed.
"That's been the experience of the estate with reference to the sale of the papers or any other memorabilia," Hill said. "That, when there's an opportunity, it has to be taken advantage of, otherwise it may not arise again for quite some time."
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. No timeline was set for Bernice King to relinquish the items.
Hill 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 King, 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.
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.
(Contributing: WXIA, Associated Press)
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