The decision to vacate the convictions also meets the demands of the moment in some ways: Malcolm X, who was both reviled and celebrated as a champion of Black people during his life, has become an icon for a younger generation of Black activists protesting high-profile killings of Black people by White police officers.
“I always felt the huge significance of Malcolm’s life. I always felt it was a story that would not be denied,” said Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Malcolm X scholar whose decades-long search for the slain leader’s true killers, featured in a Netflix documentary, surfaced fresh evidence and helped prompt the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. to launch a review of the case.
Muhammad’s investigative efforts, along with those of deceased journalist Les Payne, cast doubt on the guilt of Aziz, who previously went by the name Norman 3X Butler, and Islam (a.k.a. Thomas 15X Johnson). Both were convicted of first-degree murder, along with confessed killer Talmadge Hayer, who goes by Mujahid Abdul Halim.
Vance’s office and the Innocence Project, which pushed for the exonerations as part of Aziz’s legal team, announced Wednesday that two convictions would be vacated Thursday afternoon in New York State Supreme Court. Vance’s office did not respond to requests for more information, but lawyers for Aziz and Islam called the clearing of their clients’ names “historic and long overdue.”
“The events that brought us here should never have occurred; those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt to its core – one that is all too familiar – even in 2021,” Aziz said in a statement released by his legal team. “I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also take[s] responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.”
In the Netflix documentary series, “Who Killed Malcolm X?,” Aziz, who was paroled in 1985, said his time in prison cost him relationships with his children, who were young when he was incarcerated. He and Islam tried to prove their innocence for decades.
“These innocent men experienced the agony of decades in prison for a crime they did not commit,” David Shanies, a private lawyer on Aziz’s team, said in a statement. “They were robbed of their freedom in the prime of their lives and branded the killers of a towering civil rights leader.”
Muhammad said he spoke to Aziz on the phone when he learned the news. “It’s a bittersweet victory,” Muhammad said. “He said he can’t get too happy about it because all the government is doing is what they should have done years ago. But with all of that, he’s still grateful that it happened and that he’s able to witness it.”
There have been many competing theories of what really happened on the morning of Feb. 21, 1965, when Malcolm X was shot down. Halim, who was paroled in 2010 after spending 45 years in prison, has maintained since his 1966 trial that Aziz and Islam played no role in the assassination.
The two men were members of Malcolm’s former Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem. In a sworn affidavit in 1977, Halim identified four other men, from a Newark mosque, who he said helped him assassinate Malcolm. But a judge reviewing the information decided it was not enough to overturn the convictions of Aziz and Islam.
Now, prosecutors are asking the court to do so.
In the documentary, a close friend of Newark mosque member William Bradley said that Bradley, also known as Al-Mustafa Shabazz, was the man who fired the bullets that killed Malcolm X, echoing Halim’s earlier assertion. Bradley’s alleged role was apparently an open secret in Newark, although Bradley denied it right up until he died in 2018, during the documentary’s filming.
There also may be some merit to conspiracy theories about the role of law enforcement in the killing, some historians say.
The NYPD, through its secret intelligence unit known as BOSSI, had infiltrated the pan-African organization that Malcolm X started after leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964. Most famously, undercover BOSSI officer Gene Roberts, a Black man and part of Malcolm’s security detail at the Audubon, tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him as he lay bleeding on the ballroom stage.
In the documentary, Roberts, who died in 2008, said he never spoke to the district attorney or testified before the jurors who convicted Aziz and Islam. The series also featured dated FBI records pointing to the agency’s awareness of other potential suspects.
Yet in the end, the evidence suggests the assassination was likely carried out by members of the Nation of Islam, who were angry, along with their leader, Elijah Muhammad, about the circumstances surrounding Malcolm X’s public break with the organization.
Malcolm had learned about Elijah Muhammad’s many mistresses and the children he had with them. Disenchanted, he began talking about it with other members of the Nation. After Muhammad forced his ouster, Malcolm went public with what he knew. Rumors that the Nation was plotting to murder him did not escape him. “I live like a man who is dead already,” he told reporters at the time.
After a trip to Africa in which he encountered Muslims of different races, Malcolm left his virulently anti-White beliefs and rhetoric behind. Worried about attracting followers to his new organization, Malcolm ordered his security team not to carry guns and not to search people at the door to the Audubon Ballroom — making it easier for his killers to slip in.
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, an admirer of Malcolm X, began his research while a student at Howard University in the 1980s. He said he suspects the government waited decades to re-examine the case because doing so could draw attention to the surveillance tactics and other behavior of the FBI and the NYPD as they tried to take Malcolm down.
For others, at the time and since, there was the sheer fear that gunmen who had brutally murdered someone like Malcolm in broad daylight would come after anyone seeking the truth, he added. And he said some Black Malcolm X experts and admirers were more comfortable believing law enforcement assassinated Malcolm because they did not want to give life to racial stereotypes or face the possibility that the iconic leader — a hero to so many — was killed by members of his own race.
“A lot of the people who wanted to get justice for Malcolm, their racial politics made it so they wouldn’t have wanted it to be definitely determined that Black people pulled the trigger,” Muhammad said.
Trent reported from Washington.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.