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Malcolm X assassination may be reinvestigated as Netflix documentary, lawyers cast doubt on convictions

Muhammad Abdul Aziz (previously known as Norman 3X Butler) was one of the men convicted in Malcolm X’s assassination. Aziz spent 20 years in prison before he was paroled in 1985. (AP) (AP)

For decades after the assassination of Malcolm X, the confessed assassin maintained that the two other men convicted as his accomplices had nothing to do with the murder.

Historians have long believed that police and prosecutors botched the investigation. Conspiracy theories about police misconduct and hidden evidence have festered. And some critics believe most of the assassins who fired at the civil rights leader managed to get away, leading to the wrongful convictions of two members of the Nation of Islam.

But now, after a new Netflix documentary series extensively reviewed evidence in support of the two men’s innocence, the infamous assassination may be getting a second look.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said in an email to The Washington Post on Sunday that it “will begin a preliminary review” of the case to decide whether it should be reinvestigated. That development was previously reported by the New York Times ahead of the Friday release of the Netflix documentary series “Who Killed Malcolm X?”

Should the district attorney’s office reopen the case, the review may tackle elusive questions covering potential additional suspects or police mistakes in one of the most high-profile assassinations in American history. Spokesman Danny Frost said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. made the decision to begin a review following a presentation several weeks ago by defense lawyers for Muhammad Abdul Aziz (previously known as Norman 3X Butler), one of the men convicted in Malcolm X’s assassination. The Innocence Project, which is handling the case along with attorney David B. Shanies, insists that 81-year-old Aziz spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was paroled in 1985.

The co-defendant who has also maintained his innocence, Khalil Islam (then Thomas 15X Johnson), died in 2009. The third defendant, confessed assassin Talmadge Hayer (a.k.a. Thomas Hagan and Mujahid Abdul Halim), maintained since his trial in 1966 that both Aziz and Islam are innocent.

“We are grateful that District Attorney Vance quickly agreed to conduct a review of the conviction of Muhammad Aziz,” Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said in a Friday statement.

“Who Killed Malcolm X?” largely follows the work of historian and Washington tour guide Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who spent years piecing together declassified FBI documents, interviewing former members of Nation of Islam mosques in New Jersey and New York City, and tracking down four other potential assassins named by Hayer but never formally investigated by authorities.

“I had read enough to believe the killers were still out there,” Muhammad said in the documentary. “I’ve never been afraid of the truth. I’ve always wanted to know, what is the real story? I mean, this is Malcolm X we’re talking about.”

Archival footage from Malcolm X’s assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. (Video: Smithsonian Channel)

In the year before his assassination, Malcolm X had split from the Nation of Islam and renounced its leader, Elijah Muhammad, as a “religious faker” pushing racist ideology. He started his own movement, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. The Nation of Islam saw him as a traitor. Louis Farrakhan, then rising in the ranks within the Nation of Islam, had written in the sect’s newspaper that he was “worthy of death.” And just a week before his assassination, Malcolm’s home had been firebombed.

On Feb. 21, 1965, multiple gunmen opened fire on Malcolm X, 39, as he gave a speech to an audience that included his wife and children, along with numerous police informants. Hayer was caught fleeing the scene with a clip matching a gun used in the shooting. As police pursued the other shooters, members of the Nation of Islam were the immediate suspects — but the documentary argues that police identified the wrong men from the wrong mosque.

They focused their attention on the Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem, where Malcolm X used to preach.

Within days, police arrested Aziz and Islam, who attended the Harlem mosque and were members of a paramilitary-like group called the Fruit of Islam. The group had been known for disciplining or beating any Nation of Islam member who broke rules, however small. “If we caught someone smoking a cigarette in the mosque, we’d throw them down the stairs headfirst,” Islam said in an interview with New York magazine in 2007.

Aziz said in the documentary that their roles as enforcers may have put them on the police’s radar, but that doesn’t mean they had anything to do with the murder. Islam and Aziz have both maintained that they were at home and incapacitated at the time of the assassination. Islam said he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, while a doctor testified during Aziz’s trial that he treated Aziz at the hospital for a leg injury just hours before Malcolm X’s killing.

The two men have also said that it would have been impossible for them to enter the Audubon Ballroom. Members of the Harlem mosque, who considered Malcolm X a traitor at the time, were barred from attending, and Aziz and Islam said they would have been immediately recognized by security.

There is also no physical evidence connecting them to the crime, according to the Innocence Project.

“They knew that I didn’t do it,” Aziz said in the documentary. “If I wanted to do it, I couldn’t have done it. So that means [police] knew what they were doing when they put me in jail. If there was no police misconduct, then what was it?”

During his 1966 trial, Hayer confessed to his role in the assassination but insisted police had the wrong co-conspirators. “I was there. I know what happened, and I know the people who were there,” Hayer said on the stand, according to the Times archives. He would again insist on Islam’s and Aziz’s innocence in a 1978 affidavit but went a step further and named the four people he claimed were the true assassins, even describing their responsibilities.

All of them, according to the affidavit, were from a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, roughly 20 miles from the Harlem location.

Despite this, a New York state judge denied civil rights lawyer William Kunstler’s 1978 motion to reopen the case.

“The real bottom line to everything we have here is that white prosecution authorities have never, across this entire chunk of time — decades of time — taken a serious interest in investigating, pursuing and solving Malcolm’s murder,” David Garrow, a civil rights historian, said in the documentary. “For Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, this has been a very lonely crusade.”

Muhammad ultimately tracked down one of the alleged assassins named by Hayer in 2010, Al-Mustafa Shabazz, who was still living in Newark. In the decades since Malcolm X’s murder, the ex-con with a long rap sheet had changed his name from William Bradley and gotten married to a civil rights activist in Newark, according to the documentary. He even appeared for “a millisecond” in a reelection campaign ad for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker in 2010, Muhammad said. (Booker said in the documentary he was very familiar with the man but was “not aware” that he was an alleged assassin.)

“It was just mind-blowing. This is the first time that the world has seen the face of the man who took the life of Malcolm X,” Muhammad said in the documentary. “He wasn’t even trying to hide … He thought the process of reinvention was so complete that he was audacious enough to appear on film, on video, for a very popular mayor, now senator.”

Shabazz denied any involvement in the assassination when the New York Daily News confronted him in 2015. “It’s an accusation,” Shabazz said then. “They never spoke to me. They just accused me of something I didn’t do.” The theory was also reported on in the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Manning Marable, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.”

Shabazz died in 2018, and Muhammad believes the other alleged assassins named by Hayer are also dead.

According to the Innocence Project, declassified FBI documents support Hayer’s account, but Manhattan prosecutors said they were not aware of the FBI documents and had not seen them at the time of the trial.

The district attorney’s conviction integrity unit is now reviewing the evidence. One of the prosecutors assigned to the review, Peter Casolaro, helped reinvestigate the Central Park Five case in the early 2000s, which resulted in the exoneration of the five men who were wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger.